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Copyright 2002 


Jeffrey Elton Anderson 

To my wife, Lynn, and son, Michael. 


I would like to thank the members of my doctoral committee: Dr. Bertram Wyatt- 
Brown, Dr. William F. Brundage, Dr. Jon Sensbach, Dr. David Hackett, and Dr. Alice 
Freifeld. Without their encouragement and suggestions, I would not be approaching the 
end of my graduate career. 

My family deserves my thanks, as well. As important as any of my committee 
members was my wife, Lynn, who patiently read through each and every page of my 
work, looking for typographical errors. I thank her for putting up with my lectures on 
conjure and the difficulties of dissertation writing. I also have my mother and father, 
Reba and William Anderson, to thank for several suggestions. 

I would also like to acknowledge those who have aided my research with 
information and professional know-how. Carolyn Morrow Long has been gracious 
enough to give me advice, even though she is working on a similar project herself. In 
addition, the hoodooists, healers, spiritual advisors, and others willing to speak with me 
have given me insight by allowing me to glimpse African- American magic at work. In 
particular, I would like to recognize the contributions of Catherine Yronwode, Deborah, 
Sallie Ann Glassman, Phoenix Savage, Barbara Gore, Miriam Chamani, Felix Figueroa, 
F. L. Robinson, Claudia Williams, Richard Miller, "Pop" Williams, Nancy Rhett, 
Eugenia Brown, and Jonell and Jazell Smith. 



Finally, my faith in God has encouraged me to persevere and given me insight into 
the workings of the supernatural. He deserves my thanks as well. 


All of the hoodoo doctors have non-conjure cases. They prescribe folk 
medicine, "roots", and are for this reason called "two-headed doctors" . . . 
Often they are not hoodoo doctors, but all hoodoo doctors also practice 


-Zora Neale Hurston, "Hoodoo in America" 

Other names for hoodoo include "conjuration," "conjure," "witchcraft," 
and "rootwork" ... As you may guess by now, it is not at all correct to 
refer to African- American hoodoo as "Voodoo." 

-Catherine Yronwode, "Hoodoo" 

Prominent among Gullah culture was the belief in herbalism, spiritualism, 
and black magic. While in other places it was called "ubia," "voodoo," or 
"santeria," the Gullah called it "the root." 

-Roger Pinckney, Blue Roots 

"Witches," "two-heads," "goopher doctors," "Voodoo priests," "root doctors," 
and other masters of the occult have long peopled African- Americans' supernatural 
world. As the above quotations suggest, however, no two authors agree on what each of 
these terms denotes. Some draw sharp lines among root doctors, goopher doctors, 
Voodoo priests, and other classes of magic workers. Others simply condense all of these 
characters into a single group, usually known as "hoodoo doctors" or "conjurers." 
Neither approach is entirely satisfactory. It is best to define a conjurer as a professional 
magic practitioner, who typically receives payment in return for his or her goods and 
services. Still, three vital questions remain unanswered. First, what separates conjure 
from syncretic religions, like Voodoo? Second, what sets conjure apart from lower-level 


supernaturalism, commonly known as "superstition?" 1 Finally, how are witches, two- 
heads, goopher doctors, rootworkers, and the like related to conjurers? 

That which properly denotes conjure falls between two extremes of religion 
proper and low-level supernaturalism. At one end of the spectrum of African- American 
beliefs lie such syncretic religions as Voodoo and Santeria. 2 Conjure is broader than 
these faiths. Functionally, syncretic religions seek to honor the gods and spirits who 
people the believers' world. For example, both Voodoo and Santeria have historically 
practiced sacrifice in order to please such deities as Papa Legba and Ogun. Conjure, 
however, does not pursue such lofty aims. Instead, conjuration seeks to accomplish 
practical objectives through the use of the spirit world. 3 While conjurers may consider 
their religion to be Christian, this does not prevent some of them from calling on Papa 
Legba to perform a specific deed. Likewise, Christian conjurers might try to compel God 
to bend to their will through selective Bible reading. For example, in a spell recorded by 

'The term "superstition" has fallen out of favor with most scholars. 
"Supernaturalism," which has taken the place of "superstition" in most recent works, 
remains too vague to be useful, encompassing a wide range of folk beliefs, including 
conjure. Thus, in this preface, I have retained the use of "superstition" simply for its 
value as a description for low-level supernaturalism. 

2 The following holds true for other Afro-European syncretic religions present in 
the United States, such as Brazilian Candomble, Trinidadian Shango, Jamaican Obeah, 
and home-grown Spiritualism. 

3 For a similar argument, see Newbell Niles Puckett, Folk Beliefs of the Southern 
Negro, Patterson Smith Reprint Series in Criminology, Law Enforcement, and Social 
Problems, No. 22 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1926; reprint, 
Montclair: Patterson Smith Publishing Corporation, 1968), 174-177. 


Zora Neale Hurston conjure clients recited Psalm 120 during "court scrapes" in order to 

guarantee success. 4 

In addition to conjure's functional distinctiveness, it also lacks the developed 
theology of syncretic religions. Though neither Santeria nor Voodoo holds to rigid 
dogmas, their basic tenets remain much the same for all practitioners. For instance, 
Voodoo believers everywhere recognize the existence of the supreme creator god, 
Damballah Wedo, who takes little part in human affairs. Likewise, believers in Santeria, 
whether they live in Cuba, Miami, and New York City, place great emphasis on the 
powers of the dead. In contrast, while the majority of conjurers engage in many of the 
same practices and use similar materials, such as graveyard dirt, bones, and plant 
materials, their uses differ widely from practitioner to practitioner. Furthermore, some 
conjurers claim to receive their power from God. Others credit familiars or animistic 
spirits. Conjure is far less systematic than even undogmatic syncretic religions. 5 

If religion delineates the upper boundary of conjure, supernaturalism marks the 
lower. The essential difference between conjure and supernaturalism rests on the relative 
amount of specialized knowledge or abilities required for their practice. For example, 
nineteenth-century Georgia blacks believed that lending salt or red pepper was bad luck. 

4 Zora Neale Hurston, Mules and Men, with a Preface by Franz Boas, Foreword by 
Arnold Rampersad, and Afterword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (New York: Harper 
Perennial, 1990), 275. 

5 See Hurston, Mules and Men, and Carl Carmer, Stars Fell on Alabama, with an 
Introduction by J. Wayne Flynt, (Tuscaloosa and London: University of Alabama, 1985), 
215-222. For accounts of syncretic religions, see Milo Riguad, Secrets of Voodoo, trans, 
by Robert B. Cross (New York: Arco, 1969; reprint, San Francisco: City Lights Books, 
1985), 43-78, and George Brandon, Santeria from Africa to the New World: The Dead 
Sell Memories (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993), 79-120. 


Such folk beliefs required no peculiar occult aptitude. On the other hand, few African- 
Americans possessed the supernatural skills to make one of the complex "luck balls" that 
nineteenth-century Missouri blacks fashioned from a combination of human hair, ashes, 
graveyard dust, pig blood, and tail feathers from a crowing hen. Such complex, and 
allegedly more potent, spells have traditionally been left up to hoodooists. 6 

There are two major exceptions to the general reliance on local conjurers for full- 
blown magic. The first began with the rise of mail-order conjure companies during the 
twentieth-century. Such businesses often sell "do-it-yourself kits which promise to 
provide anyone with magical powers. A second case is the many traditional practices 
designed to remedy and prevent conjure, such as the custom of sweeping and scouring 
recently-occupied homes to cleanse them from evil forces. These modes of supposed 
protection rarely reach the level of complexity commonly attached to the conjurer's art. 
Nevertheless, as foils of evil magic, they must be classed as a form of counter-conjure. 7 

Having set the boundaries to what properly constitutes conjure, what are we to 
make of the plethora of words indiscriminately used as synonyms? This question must be 
answered in three parts. First, "hoodoo," and the lesser-known "mojo," "tricking," and 

6 Roland Steiner, "Superstitions and Beliefs from Central Georgia," Journal of 
American Folk-Lore 12 (1899): 263; Mary Alicia Owen, Voodoo Tales as Told among 
the Negroes of the Southwest, with an Introduction by Charles Godfrey Leland (New 
York and London: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1893), 174. 

7 Steiner, "Superstitions and Beliefs from Central Georgia," 263. For one example 
of a mail-order curio company, see the Lucky Mojo Curio Company, which can be found 
online at 


"fixing" are readily interchangeable with "conjure." The only differences among the 
terms are regional and personal preferences. 8 

Second, some authors treat "witch" as a synonym for "conjurer," even though 
African- Americans sometimes distinguish between the two terms. While conjurers are 
human, the same cannot be said for witches, who are sometimes described as nonhuman 
beings who ride lightning and give birth to vampires. In some accounts, witches also 
engage in practices below the dignity of most conjurers, such as riding sleepers and 
stealing milk from cows. At the same time, witches can usually transform themselves 
into a variety of animals, an ability not possessed by many conjurers. 9 

Finally, a variety of other terms refer to specific aspects of African- American 
magic. The most common of such semi-synonyms for "conjurer" is "rootworker." Some 
scholars have argued that rootworkers are a distinct class, differentiated from conjurers 
through their use of herbal remedies to cure medical problems. Hoodoo, they maintain, 

8 Mary Owen, Voodoo Tales, 209-222; Catherine Yronwode, proprietor of Lucky 
Mojo Curio Company, interview by author, 15 January 2001, phone call between 
Gainesville, FL and Forestville, CA, notes, personal collection, Birmingham, AL; 
Catherine Yronwode, "Hoodoo," Lucky Mojo Curio Company Website, 1995-1999, 
<> (20 May 2002). Many African- 
Americans view "hoodoo" and "Voodoo" as synonyms, using both to refer to magic. The 
distinction between the proper usage of two terms is a modern one, promulgated by 
Voodoo believers who wish to identify their faith as a legitimate religion and hoodoo 
practitioners attempting to disassociate themselves from the religious connotations and 
negative stereotypes attached to Voodoo. 

9 Mary Owen, Voodoo Tales, 209-222; Tom Peete Cross, "Witchcraft in North 
Carolina," Studies in Philology 16 (1919):217-287; Richard M. Dorson, ed., Negro 
Folktales in Michigan (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956), 101; Catherine 
Yronwode, interview by author. 


seeks to improve spiritual conditions. 10 As Zora Neale Hurston has pointed out, however, 
"Nearly all of the conjure doctors practice 'roots,' but some of the root doctors are not 
hoodoo doctors." 11 Thus, rootwork is an aspect of virtually all conjurers' repertoire. 
While some root doctors understand their profession in light of modern science, many 
hoodooists simply attribute herbal remedies' efficacy to magic. 

Some authors distinguish specialists within the broader field of conjure. For 
instance, Catherine Yronwode, owner of the Lucky Mojo Curio Company, argues that 
conjurers can be divided into three categories: hoodooists, healers, and readers. 
According to this categorization, readers only tell clients' futures. In contrast, healers use 
herbal medicine to cure illnesses. Hoodooists, meanwhile, are specialists in evil and its 
cure. Many conjurers, however, practice all three professions, rendering any distinctions 
vague at best. 12 Similarly, some conjurers use epitaphs like "doctor" to imply that they 
perform only good magic. Historically, this distinction has been largely fictitious, a way 
for conjurers to make themselves more acceptable to clients while demonizing their rivals 
as workers of evil. Of course, some conjurers do specialize. This is most common with 

10 See Melville J. Herskovits, The Myth of the Negro Past, with an Introduction by 
Sidney W. Mintz (Boston: Beacon Press, 1990), 224-251, for the most famous author to 
draw this distinction. 

"Hurston, Mules and Men, 281. 

12 Yronwode, interview by author. In the last few decades "psychic" fortunetellers 
have also entered the scene. While these practitioners fulfill the same function as 
traditional readers, they claim to use a special mental gift to foretell the future rather than 
such traditional tools as playing cards or bones. 


readers, who often predict the future without offering the possibility of changing it. Such 
individuals, however, are the exception rather than the rule. 13 

Other terms commonly used to designate conjurers are less problematic. For 
instance, "goopher doctor" refers to the strong connection between hoodoo and the dead. 
"Goopher" is a synonym for "grave," most commonly used in reference to "goopher 
dust," which is dirt taken from a cemetery. Another equivalent of "conjure doctor" is 
"two-head." According to Hurston, this term refers to hoodooists' ability to deal in both 
magic and herbal medicine. Another explanation is that it reflects a belief that conjurers 
possess two souls. These are but a few of the most common appellations applied to 
conjurers. Although many others exist, they appear only rarely and are usually confined 
to specific localities. 14 

The distinctions outlined above are somewhat arbitrary. The borders among 
religion, magic, and lower forms of supernaturalism are porous and blurred. While one 
person may differentiate between healers and conjurers, another may not. Still, an 
understanding of the terms is necessary for their study. Moreover, these distinctions 
reflect genuine, though fluid and often indistinct, differences that must be appreciated in 
order to effectively examine the practice of conjure, its origins, regional distinctions, and 

1 Catherine Yronwode, interview by author. 

14 Zora Neale Hurston, "Hoodoo in America," Journal of American Folklore 44 
(1931): 320; Roland Steiner, "Braziel Robinson Possessed of Two Spirits," Journal of 
American Folk-Lore 14 (1901): 226-228. 





























Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School 

of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the 

Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy 



Jeffrey Elton Anderson 

December 2002 

Chair: Professor Bertram Wyatt-Brown 
Major Department: History 

"Conjure in African- American Society" is an examination of the magical beliefs 
of black Americans, beginning in the antebellum period and continuing to the present. Its 
objective is to demonstrate the historical importance of conjure in African- American life, 
making it a worthy topic of further study. The dissertation's secondary concern is to trace 
the origins and evolution of hoodoo over time. 

The Introduction is a historiographic essay identifying a series of waves in 
scholarly concern with conjure, which eventually led to the gradual disappearance of 
hoodoo from understandings of black society. The first four chapters address conjure 
during the nineteenth century. Chapter 1 lays a groundwork for the rest of the study by 
describing the reputed powers of hoodoo. Chapter 2 examines the importance of the 
conjurer in nineteenth-century black life. The next two chapters look at the African roots 
and European and Native American influences on hoodoo. The last two chapters focus 
on African-American magic during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Chapter 5 


examines the transformation of traditional conjure into the spiritual products industry. 
The sixth chapter follows the course of hoodoo into the twentieth century, focusing on the 
growing acceptance of hoodoo among both blacks and whites. The Conclusion completes 
the dissertation by evaluating the influence of conjure on black society. 






Thomas Nelson Page, one of the major architects of the "moonlight and 
magnolias" myth of the Old South, published his most famous novel, Red Rock, in 1899. 
Set during Reconstruction, its pages are filled with the standard characters of Page's 
genre: heroic Southern planters, dutiful union soldiers, and depraved carpetbaggers. One 
villain, Dr. Moses, is particularly overdrawn in his depiction of his physical as well as 
moral perversity. Rachel Welch, the novel's heroine, observes that, "His chin stuck so 
much forward that the lower teeth were much outside of the upper, or, at least, the lower 
jaw was; for the teeth looked as though they had been ground down, and his gums, as he 
grinned, showed as blue on the edges as if he had painted them." 1 

Moses is a "trick-doctor," a term which Page felt no need to define. Modern 
readers are left to question why the bizarrely misshapen Moses should be such a threat to 
the white population. Other contemporary works provide answers. For instance, Philip 
A. Bruce, author of the 1889 work, The Plantation Negro as a Freedman, described the 
trick-doctor as "a man whose only employment . . . lies in the practice of the art of 
witchcraft," who "is invested with even more importance than the preacher, since he is 

'Thomas Nelson Page, Red Rock: A Chronicle of Reconstruction (New York: 
Charles Scribner's Sons, 1898), 292. 


regarded with the respect that fear incites." 2 Moreover, Moses' physical appearance is 
typical of the numerous descriptions of trick-doctors which appeared during the late 
nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries. For instance, in "Observations on the Practice 
of Conjuring in Georgia," Roland Steiner recorded in 1901 the African- American folk 
belief that the spells of blue-gummed blacks invariably caused death. Likewise, folklorist 
Mary Alicia Owen, using the language of her informant, in 1891, described a legendary 
"witcheh-man" as "de mos' uglies' man in de worl', wid er whopple-jaw an' er har'-lip, 
sidesen er lop side an' er crooked laig an' one eye dat wuz des lak fiah an' one dat was 
daid." 3 In short, published accounts of African- American magic were so common during 
the era that Page had no need to explain what he meant by "trick doctor." 4 After Page's 
time, however, literary and academic interest in black sorcery declined. 5 The net result 
has been that the trick-doctor, also known as the hoodoo doctor or conjurer, has become 
virtually invisible in most Americans' conceptions of black society, even while the 
vocation of conjuring lives on in many African- American communities. 6 

2 Philip A. Bruce, The Plantation Negro as a Freedman: Observations on His 
Character, Condition, and Prospects in Virginia (New York and London: G. P. Putnam's 
Sons, 1889), 115. 

3 Roland Steiner, "Observations on the Practice of Conjuring in Georgia," Journal 
of American Folk-Lore 14 (1901): 177; Mary Owen, Voodoo Tales, 219. 

4 For a similar description of conjurers, see Leonora Herron, "Conjuring and 
Conjure Doctors," Southern Workman 24 (1891): 117-118. 

5 For the most important passages addressing Dr. Moses, see Page, 60, 103, 287, 
291-293,356-358. Herron, 117-118. 

6 Though hoodoo survives in the black community, it is not the pervasive force it 
once was. Today, widespread belief in its powers is restricted to confined areas, such as 
the South Carolina Sea Islands and New Orleans. 

How can one explain such drastic shifts in attention to conjure? The answer lies 
in intellectual and cultural shifts over the course of the late nineteenth and twentieth 
centuries, which have changed the ways that both blacks and whites have constructed 
identity. Between the Civil War and World War II, Americans in general and Southern 
whites in particular feared losing their cultural identity to the homogenizing effects of 
industrial capitalism, and conjure was one expression of peculiarity that they used to 
resist the threatened loss of national and regional distinctiveness. Once war catapulted 
America to the forefront of world politics and economics, regional distinctions became 
less important than national pride and a united front against communism. For blacks, 
attention to hoodoo was likewise a question of identity. Unlike whites, however, they 
tended to view hoodoo as a negative feature of their society. Its practice, they thought, 
would have to be stamped out before they could hope to achieve equality. Recently, the 
influence of the closely- linked forces of cultural pluralism, postmodernism, and the New 
Age movement and rising black assertiveness have made magic an acceptable expression 
of spirituality for many. Nevertheless, conjure remains an understudied facet of black 
society. 7 

Before the Civil War, southerners, white and black, were well aware of the 
existence of conjure. For instance, in a diary entry for March 3, 1816, South Carolinian 
George Izard recorded an encounter with a sickly Mr. Perkins, who explained his illness 

7 For works on the mechanics of identity construction and cultural nationalism, see 
Benedict Andersen, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of 
Nationalism (London and New York: Verso, 1993); Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, 
eds., The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 
1983); Kathleen Neils Conzen, David A. Gerber, Ewa Morawska, George E. Pozzetta, 
Rudolph J. Vecoli, "The Invention of Ethnicity: A Perspective from the U. S. A.," 
Journal of American Ethnic History 12 (1992): 3-41. 

as a result of a spell cast by a spumed admirer. After physicians' remedies failed him, 
Mr. Perkins turned to conjure. Izard's experience was far from unique. Many whites 
learned of conjure from their slaves. Such was the case with Thaddeus Norris, author of 
"Negro Superstitions." Writing five years after the Civil War, he admitted that he had 
"firmly believed in witches" as a child, a conviction he acquired through his close 
relationship to an elderly "house servant." 8 Also, Frederick Douglass, most prominent of 
black abolitionists, included an account of hoodoo in his Narrative, spreading knowledge 
of the practice to northern readers. Nevertheless, few observers commented on the 
practice beyond pointing it out as a sign of slaves' intellectual backwardness. Slaves 
were to be either worked or freed, not studied for their culture. 9 

Immediately following the war, Southern whites were too busy restoring 
Democratic control of their states to devote increased interest to sectional identity, 
certainly not in reference to black folk religion. After all, their recent experience of 
military defeat and occupation left no room to doubt their distinctiveness. One of the few 
whites to address black folk religions was Thaddeus Norris, who bluntly wrote, "The 
more refined a people, the more interesting its mythical legends. Those of the Caucasian 
race are attractive; while those of the negroes are repulsive, especially when connected 

8 Thaddeus Norris, "Negro Superstitions," Lippincott 's Monthly Magazine 6 
(1870): 95. 

'George Izard, "Diary of a Journey by George Izard, 1815-1816," The South 
Carolina Historical Magazine 53 (1952): 160; Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life 
of Frederick Douglass (New York: Dover Publications, 1995), 41-42, 47. 

with their heathenish religions." 10 Literate blacks generally felt the same way. A 
selection of letters on conjure published in The Southern Workman provides evidence. 
This newspaper was associated with Virginia's Hampton Institute, one of the nation's 
oldest historically-black schools. In 1878, the school elicited reports on the level of 
superstition among the freedmen from its students and graduates. The response was over 
one hundred letters, only six of which saw print. Most of the contributors frankly stated 
that conjure was a negative, but common, feature of black society. One author, referred 
to as "L." in the printed version of his letter, was particularly harsh in his denunciation of 
hoodoo. He asserted, "Conjure doctors are not so numerous now as they were before our 
race became so enlightened, but still they are too numerous. They are a curse to their 
race." 11 Overcoming racist oppression and abject poverty through education was much 
more important to blacks than questions of culture. With both whites and blacks 
disgusted by Negro ignorance, few were interested in more than denouncing conjure. 

Since Reconstruction, interest in conjure has generally followed a wavelike 
pattern of increasing and decreasing interest. Since the end of Republican rule in the 
South, interest in conjure has crested three times. The first of these upturns began in the 
mid- 1880s and persisted until shortly after 1900. Following the turn of the century, 
writings appeared less and less frequently until the 1920s, when a new wave of interest 
emerged. It had passed by the early 1940s, when conjure once again faded from public 

10 Norris, 90-91 . See also, "The Religious Life of the Negro Slave," Harper 's New 
Monthly Magazine 27 (1863): 816-825, which mentions conjuring as an important part of 
blacks' religion. 

"R., L., G., and A., "Conjure Doctors in the South," The Southern Workman 1 
(1878): 30-31; W. and C, "About the Conjuring Doctors," The Southern Workman 7 
(1878): 38-39. 

view. The second trough was much deeper than the first. With occasional exceptions, 
few works on hoodoo appeared until the 1970s. At that point, a new respect for black 
folk beliefs, including conjure, arose. 

As local distinctions seemed threatened by industrial homogenization following 
the Civil War, whites searched for regional peculiarities in order to construct a distinct 
identity. Corporatism, national advertising, and consumerism threatened to transform the 
South into a carbon copy of the North. 12 It is no coincidence that articles on conjure 
peaked in the 1890s, when a new generation which had never owned slaves or fought in 
the Civil War grew to prominence. In addition to ending the most important distinction 
between the sections, emancipation had destroyed the paternalistic labor system in which 
blacks and whites lived and worked side by side, occupying the same geographic space. 
As the temporary gains of Reconstruction faded during the last two decades of the 
nineteenth century, Jim Crow took their place, eventually resulting in a rigid system of 
economic and social segregation. As a result, blacks and whites lived their lives ever 
more separately, and each culture became less familiar to the other. Whites had long 
considered blacks a backward and superstitious people. Safely cut off from political or 
economic power, blacks' folk beliefs could now be used to bolster white superiority and 
regional distinctiveness. To white authors, the hoodoo doctor became a powerful image 

12 See Thomas Jonathan Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and 
the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1981). 
Lears argues that individuals turned to antimodern pursuits, such as the arts and crafts 
movement, orientalism, medievalism, and religious mysticism as ways of coping with the 
social and cultural onslaughts of modernity. In Norman Pollack, The Populist Response 
to Industrial America: Midwestern Populist Thought (Cambridge: Harvard University 
Press, 1962), the author applied a similar argument to midwestern Populism, which he 
believed was a revolt against industrial capitalism. 

of the Southern past, conjuring up images of aristocratic planters and their happy, but 
dependent, "servants." Moreover, by describing blacks as a backward people, whites 
defined what their race was not. At the same time, African- Americans began to develop a 
class system. As members of the small but growing middle class gained educations and 
quickly adopted the scientific outlook and social Darwinism of the larger American 
society, they confidently expected conjure to disappear. 13 In fact, according to many 
blacks' ideology of racial uplift, such backward features of black society would have to 
give way before the race could hope to advance. Thus, while whites used black folk 
beliefs as a symbol of their own past glories, African-Americans rejected whites' self- 
serving characterization of blacks as "superstitious." 14 

The Local Color literary movement typified whites' construction of identity. In 
the South, this impulse often found expression in collections of black folklore, relayed in 
the dialect of the plantation "darkie." Most prominent among these works was Joel 
Chandler Harris' 1880 book, Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, a collection of 
African- American animal stories ostensibly related by an elderly former slave to a child 

13 For an excellent discussion of the extent to which the academic world was 
science-centered during the late nineteenth century, see Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: 
The 'Objectivity Question ' and the American Historical Profession (New York: 
Cambridge University Press, 1988), 31-44. 

14 For works on the development of segregation and resistance to it, see Robert J. 
Norrell, Reaping the Whirlwind: The Civil Rights Movement in Tuskegee (New York: 
Knopf, 1985), and C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (New York: 
Oxford University Press, 1957). For excellent examples of the strength racial uplift 
ideology, see The Southern Workman. Founded in 1872, its early issues ceaselessly 
promote self-improvement of blacks and Indians. 

who he had befriended. 15 Over the next twenty-five years, numerous authors sought to 
duplicate Harris' success, with the result that black folklore became staple reading for 
white American youths until well into the twentieth century. 16 In practice, Local Color 
works provided a bridge between the romanticism of the early nineteenth century and the 
realism which came to characterize the twentieth. As such, it was the perfect vehicle for 
whites to record the exoticism of the plantation past, dovetailing nicely with the chivalric 
tales of Thomas Nelson Page. At the same time, it allowed authors to glorify the region's 
race relations by providing "records" of friendly interaction between superior whites and 
dependent blacks through the medium of African- American stories told in dialect. In an 
age when white southerners sought sectional reconciliation while maintaining their 
uniqueness, Local Color helped them write their past and present racial systems in a way 
that made their acceptance by the rest of the nation more palatable. 17 

The growth of the social sciences, especially professionalized folklore, provided 
another vehicle for white southerners' search for identity. Brought to prominence in 
Europe by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm during the early and middle nineteenth century, 
folklore quickly became a popular pursuit. 18 By the late 1870s, folklorists had begun to 

15 Joel Chandler Harris, Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, new and revised 
edition, with illustrations by Arthur Burdette Frost (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 

16 For two of the more well-known of Harris' imitators see, Charles Colcock Jones, 
Jr., Gullah Folktales from the Georgia Coast, with a Foreword by Susan Miller Williams 
(Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 2000), and Mary Owen, Voodoo Tales. 

17 For an account of scholarly efforts to erase sectionalism, see Novick, 72-80. 

18 See Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers 
Grimm, trans, and with an Introduction by Jack Zipes, with illustrations by John B. 
Gruelle (New York: Bantam Books, 1992). 

professionalize their field. One of the earliest signs of this development was the founding 
of the English Folklore Society in 1878. Ten years later, American folklorists created 
their own national organization, the American Folklore Society. The International 
Expositions of 1889, 1891, and 1893, which stressed the importance of progress, hosted 
folklore congresses in order to emphasize the backwardness of primitive societies, while 
preserving their beliefs for future generations. During the 1891 exposition, Mary Alicia 
Owen helped bring conjure to scholarly attention by presenting a paper entitled "Among 
the Voodoos," describing the magical practices of Missouri's blacks. 19 The newly- 
founded Journal of American Folklore, organ of the American Folklore Society, 
published numerous articles on conjure and related practices throughout its early 
volumes. 20 Following an article on Haitian Voodoo in its 1888 inaugural issue, the 
journal published W. W. Newell's "Reports of Voodoo Worship in Hayti and Louisiana" 
in its second volume. The journal did not confine itself to Voodoo proper, however, and 
over the next decade and a half, numerous brief notes and full-length articles appeared. 
Typically, they resemble Roland Steiner's "Observations on the Practice of Conjuring in 

19 These International Expositions were held in Paris, London, and Chicago, 
respectively. For the text of Owen's talk, see Mary Alicia Owen, "Among the Voodoos," 
in The International Folk-lore Congress 1891: Papers and Transactions (London: David 
Nutt, 1892), 230-248. 

20 In its early years, this journal's title was written, "Journal of American Folk- 
Lore" which was later changed to "Journal of American Folklore." In the body of this 
work, I use the latter, but in the footnotes, I use whichever title was appropriate for the 
time period. 

Georgia," an essay which combines conjure stories with instructions for using particular 

magical materials. 21 

After 1893, the South's African- Americans had their own folklore society based 
at Virginia's Hampton Normal School, a historically black institution (later known as the 
Hampton Institute). In a notice to students announcing the founding of the Hampton 
Folk-Lore Society, an anonymous author stated, "The American Negroes are rising so 
rapidly from the condition of ignorance and poverty . . . that the time seems not far distant 
when they shall have cast off their past entirely." 22 If a record of conjure was not 
preserved, blacks would become a people without a history beyond what whites chose to 
give them. Progress, destined to wipe out such folk beliefs as conjure, would 
nevertheless preserve knowledge of such "savagery" for future generations through the 
work of professional folklorists. To this end The Southern Workman, the school 
newspaper, published numerous articles on black folklore during the late nineteenth 
century. 23 Throughout the 1890s and early years of the 1900s, Southern Workman 

21 Simon Bronner, American Folklore Studies: An Intellectual History (Lawrence: 
University Press of Kansas, 1986), 1-38. See also Simon Bronner, ed., Folklife Studies in 
the GuildedAge: Object Rite, and Custom in Victorian America (Ann Arbor and London: 
University Microfilms, 1987), and Giuseppe Cocchiara, The History of Folklore in 
Europe, trans, by John N. McDaniel, Translations in Folklore Studies, Dan Ben- Amos, 
ed. (Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1981); William W. Newell, 
"Myths of Voodoo Worship and Child Sacrifice in Hayti," The Journal of American 
Folk-Lore 1 (1888): 16-30; William W. Newell, "Reports of Voodoo Worship in Hayti 
and Louisiana," Journal of American Folk-Lore 2 (1889): 41-47; Steiner, "Observations," 


Folk-Lore and Ethnology," Southern Workman 22 (1893): 180. 

"Technically, not an academic journal, Southern Workman approached conjure 
with the same level of sophistication as the Journal of American Folklore. For this 
reason, and because the newspaper was published by an academic institution, I refer to it 
as a scholarly publication so far as it relates to hoodoo. 


frequently included a column entitled "Folk-Lore and Ethnology," which regularly 
addressed conjure. Like the articles appearing in the Journal of American Folklore, these 
accounts tended to be simple descriptions of hoodoo beliefs. Nevertheless, a few 
accounts display a high degree of analytical sophistication. The most important example 
is A. M. Bacon's "Conjuring and Conjure-Doctors," published in 1895. Bacon divides 
conjuration into two types, charms and poisons, and argues that conjurers provided five 
primary services to their clients, roughly summarized as follows: diagnosis of afflictions 
caused by magic, discovery of those who cast the spell, searching out and destroying 
tricks, curing those who have been conjured, and turning spells back on those who cast 
them. 24 Meanwhile, other authors began to tentatively introduce new interpretations. For 
instance, Leonora Herron, in her essay "Conjuring and Conjure-Doctors" (not to be 
confused with Bacon's article of the same title), argued that conjure functioned as a 
means of redressing wrongs, for which slavery had provided no other mechanism. In 
addition, Herron proposed that conjure was not solely of African origin, but was also 
influenced by "association with the white race . . . till it became a curious conglomerate 
of fetichism, divination, quackery, incantation and demonology." 25 Despite the growing 
volume and analytical rigor of such articles, few authors saw conjure as a positive aspect 
of the black past. Instead, African- Americans followed the lead of whites, condemning 

24 Four years before Bacon published her piece, Mary Alicia Owen's paper at the 
1891 International Folk-lore Congress classified Missouri Voodoo charms into "good 
tricks," "bad tricks," "all that pertains to the body," and "commanded things." Owen's 
presentation, however, was less influential than Bacon's essay. 

25 A. M. Bacon, "Conjuring and Conjure-Doctors," Southern Workman 24 (1895): 
193-194, 209-21 1; Leonora Herron, "Conjuring and Conjure-Doctors," Southern 
Workman 24 (1895): 1 17-118, quoted 117. See also Daniel Webster Davis, 
"Conjuration," Southern Workman 27 (1898): 251-252. 

hoodoo as a sign of backwardness. While whites used conjure to bolster their 
supremacist assumptions, however, blacks used its supposed decline as a symbol of 
advancement. 26 

Southerners' attempts to build a new identity brought hoodoo to national 
attention. Knowledge of conjure ceased to be the purview of southerners who 
experienced it firsthand. Instead, a growing number of books intended for popular 
consumption began to treat hoodoo as an important part of black culture. Publications 
reporting on the progress of the black race, such as Brace's The Plantation Negro as a 
Freedman, increasingly came to address the backwardness of conjure. Likewise, 
autobiographies of ex-slaves often pointed to antebellum conjure to demonstrate how far 
blacks had risen from bondage. Such was the case with Jacob Stoyer, a former South 
Carolina slave, who made much of slaves' belief in magic, recording their use of red 
pepper and salt to repel witches. Another former slave, William Wells Brown, author of 
My Southern Home, used the character of "Uncle Dinkie," a conjurer, as a semi- 
humorous figure to demonstrate the "ignorant days of slavery." In addition to being a 
fraud who earned his reputation by fortune-telling, love potions, and "medicine" he had 
learned to serve the devil instead of God, "kase de white folks don't fear de Lord." 27 

26 Please note that not all contributors to the Southern Workman were necessarily 
black. As was common at other institutions, many instructors were white. Nevertheless, 
authors of both races generally approached their topics with the interests of their black 
readers in mind. 

"Brace, 1 1 1-125; Jacob Stoyer, My Life in the South, 4 th ed. (Salem: Newcomb 
and Gauss, 1898), 52-59; William Wells Brown, My Southern Home: or, the South and 
Its People (A. G Brown and Company, 1880; reprint, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: 
The Gregg Press, 1968), 68-82, quoted 69 and 75. See also Louis Hughes, Thirty Years a 
Slave: From Bondage to Freedom (Milwaukee: South Side Printing Company, 1897), 

Another class of publication which usually addressed conjure were the collections 
of black folklore which made their appearance during the years around 1900. Harris' 
Uncle Remus refers to conjure only briefly, but some of his imitators dealt with it in 
greater depth. For instance, in Charles Colcock Jones, Jr.'s Gullah Folktales from the 
Georgia Coast, "Buh Rabbit" must contend with conjure doctors as well as wolves and 
tar babies. Two works appeared which were entirely devoted to stories of hoodoo. The 
earliest of these was Mary Alicia Owen's Voodoo Tales as Told among the Negroes of 
the Southwest, first published in 1893. As its alternate title, Old Rabbit, the Voodoo, and 
Other Sorcerers, suggests, Owen's work is a collection of animal stories in which magic 
is the driving force, and Rabbit, Woodpecker, and the Bee-King appear as the animal 
kingdom's principal conjurers. Another work from the period which centers on hoodoo 
was Virginia Frazer Boyle's Devil Tales. Unlike Harris, Colcock, and Owen, Boyle 
recorded stories of human hoodooists, usually locked in combat with the devil. 
Nevertheless, her underlying aim was the same: glorification of the southern past. 
Describing her sense of loss at the death of her storytelling black "Mammy," she wrote, 
"The swaying form, crooning in a low rich voice, like some bronze Homer blind to 
letters, a weird primeval lore into the ears of future orators, is shut within the feudal past 
of the old plantation days." 28 

A final group of books which began to appear during this era were fictional works 
built around the workings of African- American magic. The most remarkable of these 
was black author Charles W. Chesnutt's The Conjure Woman, which recounts a series of 

28 Jones, Gullah Folktales, 1 1 1-1 13, 177-184. Mary Owen, Voodoo Tales; 
Virginia Frazier Boyle, Devil Tales, with illustrations by A. B. Frost (1900; reprint, 
Freeport: Books for Libraries Press, 1972), quoted xi. 

tales told by Uncle Julius, an ex-slave, to white Ohioan immigrants to North Carolina. 
Though ostensibly a collection of conjure stories from plantation days, Chesnutt's Julius 
used them to persuade his white acquaintances to favor him with gifts and other 
considerations. For example, in the story "Po' Sandy," he convinced the Ohioan narrator 
and his wife not to tear down an old building because it had been built from a person who 
a conjure woman had changed into a tree. Shortly after, Julius himself asked for the 
building, which he used for a church. Chesnutt, only marginally interested in the practice 
of conjure, used stories of the occult to demonstrate the overriding power of whites. Only 
by preying on whites' sense of sentiment did Julius succeed in achieving his goals. 
Nevertheless, white readers used it to bolster their own version of the pre-Civil War 
South, including the primitive superstitiousness of blacks. In keeping with their 
interpretation of The Conjure Woman, white authors painted an even more negative 
picture of blacks' supernaturalism. Thomas Nelson Page's Dr. Moses preyed upon noble 
whites, especially women, and led blacks in attempts to overthrow the ruling class. As 
such, Moses and his kind were the opposite of white southerners. In the 1904 book, An 
Angel by Brevet, Helen Pitkin told the story of a white New Orleans girl who dabbled in 
hoodoo and its near-tragic results. Despite its threatening nature, the presence of conjure 
was part of what it meant to be southern. Pitkin put it best. Describing the scene of her 
novel, she wrote, "New Orleans is yearning upward through Northern lights and is losing 
by degrees the peculiarities that have given her 'color' in high relief against even 
Southern cities. But for many years to come the traditions of the Congo precincts of 

demonry will cling to her." 29 White dominated the late nineteenth-century South. For 
Chesnutt, conjure was one means by which blacks could deal with the injustices of the 
ruling class. For white authors, hoodoo symbolized black barbarism, a necessary 
counterpart to their conception of white civilization. For both races, it was part of what it 
meant to be southern. 30 

Even those who had no particular interest in slave life would encounter stories of 
conjure in their newspapers and popular magazines. For instance, on July 10, 1889, Key 
West, Florida's Daily Equator-Democrat recorded that blacks of the Carolinas believed 
that castor oil was made by a conjurer from human blood. The popularity of stories of 
hoodoo was so widespread that even national magazines carried accounts of it. Not 
surprisingly, New Orleans, home of Voodoo, received the most attention. In 1885, the 
respected Harper's Weekly published an obituary of Jean Montanet, a well-known 
Voodoo conjurer. Its author, Lafcadio Hearn, celebrated the deceased as "the most 
extraordinary African character who that ever obtained celebrity within [New Orleans]," 
giving him the title "Last of the Voudoos." 31 The following year, The Century Magazine 
published two articles by George Washington Cable, which included much information 
on the music and dance of Voodoo. Though journalists gave New Orleans more than its 

29 Helen Pitkin, An Angel by Brevet: A Story of Modern New Orleans (Philadelphia 
and London: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1904), 7. 

30 Charles W. Chesnutt, The Conjure Woman, with an Introduction by Robert M. 
Farnsworth (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969); Page, 60, 103, 287, 291- 
293, 356-358; Pitkin, esp. 5-7. See also George W. Cable, The Grandissimes: A Story of 
Creole Life (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1891). 

3 'Lafcadio Hearn, "The Last of the Voudoos," Harper's Weekly Magazine 29 
(1885): 726. 

share of attention, they were not remiss in addressing conjure in other locales. For 
example, in 1889, The Atlantic Monthly carried the article, "Voodooism in Tennessee," 
which describes the author's experience with a tricked black servant. A year before, Eli 
Shepard published a summary of conjure beliefs as "Superstitions of the Negro," which 
appeared in Cosmopolitan. In the 1 890s, Lippincott 's Monthly Magazine also published 
two accounts of hoodoo. In short, knowledge of conjure was difficult to escape during 
the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Such familiarity made it acceptable for 
popular authors, like Thomas Nelson Page, to use conjurers as characters in their works 
with little or no explanation of their person or powers. 32 

As late as 1908, the editor of Metropolitan Magazine was able to confidently 
state, "We all know to a slight extent that the uneducated negro is a victim of superstition, 
believes in spells and portents, and observes certain rites to ward off evil." 33 Interest in 
hoodoo, however, was already on the wane. By the second decade of the twentieth 
century, what had once been a flood of popular articles slowed to a trickle. Scholarly 
interest fared somewhat better, however. While Southern Workman had dropped its 

32 "Believed in North Carolina Also," The Daily Equator-Democrat, 10 July 1889; 
Hearn, "The Last of the Voudoos," 726-727; George Washington Cable, "The Dance in 
Place Congo," with illustrations by E. W. Kemble, The Century Magazine 31 (1886): 
517-532; George Washington Cable, "Creole Slave Songs," with illustrations by E. W. 
Kemble, The Century Magazine 31 (1886): 807-828; S. M. Park, "Voodooism in 
Tennessee," The Atlantic Monthly 64 (1889): 376-380; Eli Shepard, "Superstitions of the 
Negro," Cosmopolitan Magazine 5 (1888): 47-50, reprinted in Bruce Jackson, ed., The 
Negro and his Folklore in Nineteenth-Century Periodicals, American Folklore Society, 
Biographical and Special Series, ed. Kenneth S. Goldstein, vol. 18 (Austin and London: 
University of Texas Press, 1967), 247-253; SaraM. Handy, "Negro Superstitions," 
Lippincott's Monthly Magazine 48 (1891): 735-739; William Cecil Elam, "A Case of 
Hoodoo," Lippincott 's Monthly Magazine 54 (1894): 138-141. 

33 See the unsigned editorial preface to Marvin Dana, "Voodoo: Its Effect on the 
Negro Race," The Metropolitan Magazine 28 (1908): 529-538. 

"Folklore and Ethnology" column by 1910, The Journal of American Folklore maintained 
an interest in hoodoo, but even this journal published fewer articles than in previous 
years. The reason for this was that the nation at large had come to accept the South and 
its distinctiveness as American. Scholarly histories, following the lead of such authors as 
William A. Dunning, validated southerners' version of their past. The Civil War became 
little more than an inevitable conflict between Northern industry and Southern 
agriculture. Slaves had lived happy, carefree lives under the watchful eye of paternalistic 
masters. Reconstruction was a tragic era in which vengeful Republicans forced their will 
upon a wronged South. At the same time, Supreme Court cases, such as Plessy vs. 
Ferguson, and Jim Crow laws had legalized blacks' status as second-class citizens. For 
blacks, the ideology of racial uplift no longer seemed so promising. As a result, the use 
of the disappearance of superstition as a benchmark of progress became less important. 
Alongside the plethora of articles already available, these shifts in black and white 
outlooks inevitably caused a decline in publications addressing conjure. 34 

While works on conjure declined from shortly after 1900 to the mid- 1920s, they 
did not disappear. Surviving folkloric interest in hoodoo helped revive popular attention 
to conjure from the late 1920s through the first half of the 1940s. For instance, the single 
most influential work to address conjure yet produced has been Newbell Niles Puckett's 
1926 book, Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro. Like his predecessors, Puckett's primary 

34 For an account of changing scholarly views of the Southern past, see Novick, 
72-80. For the two most prominent sympathetic treatments of Southern experiences 
during the Civil War and Reconstruction, see Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard, The 
Rise of American Civilization, with decorations by Wilfred Jones, 2 vols. (New York: 
The Macmillan Company, 1927), and William Archibald Dunning, Reconstruction, 
Political and Economic, 1865-1877 (New York and London: Harper and Brothers, 1907). 


concern was the assertion of white cultural supremacy. Indeed, his avowed purpose in 
writing Folk Beliefs was to preserve the "mental heirlooms of the Old South." 35 Though 
he generally followed A. M. Bacon's conclusion that conjure evolved from the religions 
of Africa, Puckett scrutinized individual beliefs and materials involved in conjure, 
determining that much of African- American conjure was of European origin. As such, it 
preserved the white past by keeping alive practices which had long disappeared among 
European- Americans. Though covering topics ranging from burial customs to prophecy, 
almost a quarter of his text is devoted to conjure and Voodoo, making Folk Beliefs the 
longest general treatment of the subject in existence. Investigating hoodoo throughout the 
South, Puckett examined the initiation of conjurers into their art, dozens of individual 
spells, and the influence and function of hoodoo doctors in the black community. Like 
Leonora Herron, he determined that conjure survived as a means of obtaining justice 
under the system of slavery. Although Puckett's work resembled the Local Color books 
of the previous century in its aims to build a white identity around the folk beliefs of their 
former slaves, it was well-received by both blacks and whites, influencing, directly or 
indirectly, all those who followed. 36 

More typical of whites' identity-building during the period were the works 
produced by the Federal Writers Project (FWP) of 1935-1939. By the mid-1920s, most 
had accepted southerners as part of the national consensus, but the very nature of the 
American system seemed threatened. During the 1 920s, intellectuals began to doubt the 

35 Puckett, Folk Beliefs, 1-78, 167-310, quoted 2. 

36 See C. H. W., review of Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro, by Newbell Niles 
Puckett, in Southern Workman 55 (1926): 574-575. 

validity of American capitalism, and many turned to Leftist ideologies, particularly 
communism. As capitalism appeared to collapse with the coming of the Great 
Depression, their doubts seemed confirmed. Massive unemployment, resulting from the 
economic downturn, likewise undermined middle- and working-class Americans' faith in 
the American Dream. Among Franklin Roosevelt's programs for economic assistance 
were several "alphabet agencies," such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA), 
which coordinated the FWP. The FWP's chief aim was to alleviate the economic distress 
of white collar workers and literary artists by providing work. Just as important, 
however, its administrators used it as a means of building a "literature of nationhood," 
that sought to restore worth to the American democratic/capitalist system. The FWP's 
chief task was the publication of city and state guidebooks, which emphasized America's 
rich heritage of diverse regional and ethnic cultures, melded together through the action 
of democracy and capitalism. Other minor projects, such as the collection and 
publication of volumes on local folklore and black life, served a similar purpose. 37 While 
most of the material collected by interviewers has never seen publication, several books 
did result. In the study of conjure, the most important of these publications are Stetson 
Kennedy's Palmetto Country and Gumbo Ya-Ya, by Lyle Saxon, Robert Tallant, and 
Edward Dreyer, both compiled from material collected by the FWP. These works include 
considerable hoodoo material from Florida and Louisiana, respectively. Palmetto 
Country and Gumbo Ya-Ya were both intended for popular audiences, and to this end, 

37 Monty Noam Penkower, The Federal Writers Project: A Study in Government 
Patronage of the Arts (Urbana, Chicago, and London: University of Illinois Press, 1977), 
see especially 1-29, 238-248. 

they retell stories of conjure in an entertaining style, reaching broader audiences than 
those works aimed at scholars, helping to once more bring conjure into the public eye. 38 

With dreams of racial uplift damaged, if not destroyed, by the deepening of 
segregation, black Americans turned from white models for their construction of African- 
American identity. By the 1920s, many African- Americans had emerged into the middle 
class, particularly in northern cities. Seeing this urban prosperity, hundreds of thousands 
of black southerners fled rural poverty in hope of finding the American Dream. The 
result was the Great Migration of blacks into such northern cities as Chicago, Detroit, and 
New York. The growing number of blacks in urban settings and the return of black 
veterans of the First World War led to rising black assertiveness. One result was the 
growth of largely middle-class civil rights organizations, such as the National Association 
for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which sought racial equality through 
legal maneuvering. The working class could be even more radical, joining such 
nationalist groups as Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association. 
Others turned to the Communist or Socialist parties or one of the other labor 
organizations which agitated for civil rights during the era. 39 

38 Stetson Kennedy, Palmetto Country (1942; Tallahassee: Florida A & M 
University Press, 1989), see especially 127-132, 163-182; Lyle Saxon, Robert Tallant, 
and Edward Dreyer, Gumbo Ya-Ya: A Collection of Louisiana Folk Tales (New York: 
Bonanza Books, 1945). 

39 Mark Naison, Communists in Harlem During the Depression (Urbana: 
University of Illinois Press, 1983); Bruce Nelson, Workers on the Waterfront (Urbana: 
University of Illinois Press, 1988); Robert Korstad and Nelson Lichtenstein, 
"Opportunities Found and Lost: Labor, Radicals, and the Early Civil Rights Movement,' 
Journal of American History 75 (1988): 786-81 1. 

Although many African- Americans of both classes participated in the drive for 
black economic improvement and political advancement, some turned to cultural 
nationalism in order to create a distinctively "Negro aesthetic" and to imbue America's 
blacks with a sense of worth, a movement commonly known as the Harlem 
Renaissance. 40 To do so, many authors employed black folklore. Zora Neale Hurston, 
author of the book-length 1931 essay, "Hoodoo in America," followed this course. 
"Hoodoo in America" was a typical folklore study of the time, consisting primarily of a 
series of anecdotes and notes on specific conjure materials. Four years later, Hurston 
published Mules and Men, the last one hundred pages of which are a heavily-revised 
version of her earlier article, now aimed at popular consumption. Hurston' s contributions 
to the scholarship of conjure include her comparison of hoodoo with Bahamian Obeah 
and her conclusion that hoodoo was primarily African in origin. Nevertheless, her most 
important innovation was to argue that hoodoo was a vital element of blacks' racial 
identity, stating, "Hoodoo, or Voodoo, as pronounced by whites, is burning with a flame 
in America, with all the intensity of a suppressed religion." 41 Unfortunately for the 
history of conjure, her contemporaries largely ignored her. Middle-class black America, 

^James R. Grossman, Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great 
Migration (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989); George Hutchinson, The 
Harlem Renaissance in Black and White (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995); 
Tracy Mishkin, The Harlem and Irish Renaissances: Language, Identity, and 
Representation, with a Foreword by George Bornstein (Gainesville and Tallahassee: 
University of Florida Press, 1998); E. David Cronon, Black Moses: The Story of Marcus 
Garvey and the Negro Improvement Association, with a Foreword by John Hope Franklin 
(Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1955); Victor A. Kramer and Robert A. 
Russ, eds., Harlem Renaissance Re-examined: A Revised and Expanded Edition (Troy: 
Whitston Publishing Company, 1997). 


Hurston, Mules and Men, 183. 


which provided the majority of her reading public, was not yet willing to abandon the 

scientific outlook which drove them to seek "progress" over an identity influenced by 

"superstition." The working class, which continued to participate in conjure, generally 

gravitated to labor-based reform instead of less tangible cultural nationalism. 42 

Nevertheless, the movement of blacks from the rural South to the urban North did 

help to bring conjure to the attention of African- Americans of both classes throughout the 

nation. For example, advertisements for conjuring materials and hoodoo practitioners 

aimed at the newly-arrived laborers boomed in black-oriented periodicals. The Chicago 

Defender, America's most popular African- American newspaper, had only one page with 

advertisements for conjure goods and services on March 1,1919. By July 7, 1928, 

however, twelve pages had such advertisements. In addition, over one hundred blues 

songs from the early twentieth century employed hoodoo motifs in their lyrics. One 

example was Bessie Brown's, "Hoodoo Blues." She sang: 

I'm on the war path now, I'm mean and evil I vow, 
Some woman stole my man, to get even I've a plan. 

Gonna sprinkle ding 'em dust all around her door 
Gonna sprinkle ding 'em dust all around her door 
Put a spider in her dumplin', make her crawl all over the floor 

Goin' 'neath her window, gonna lay a black cat bone 
Goin' 'neath her window, gonna lay a black cat bone 
Burn a candle on her picture, she won't let my good man alone. 

Got myself some gris-gris, tote it up in a sack 
Got myself some gris-gris, tote it up in a sack 
Gonna keep on wearin' it till I get my good man back 

I was born 'way down in Algiers, I wear conjure in my shoes 

42 Hurston, "Hoodoo in America," 318-417; Hurston, Mules and Men, especially 


Born 'way down in Algiers, I wear conjure in my shoes 
Gonna fix that woman, make her sing them hoodoo blues. 43 

At the same time, some conjurers became nationally known figures. Chief among them 

were James Jordan of Como, North Carolina, and "Doctor Buzzard" (also known as 

Stephaney Robinson) of Beaufort, South Carolina, who drew their clientele from across 

the eastern United States. Both men became wealthy through their work, sometimes 

charging hundreds, even thousands, of dollars for single spells. While Hurston 

unsuccessfully sought to make hoodoo a foundation for a black identity encompassing all 

classes, the masses of African- American laborers had never forgotten its importance. 44 

As the impact of Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro and the publications of the 

FWP collided with rising black assertiveness, historians and other scholars began to give 

ever more attention to conjure. Of particular interest to historians and anthropologists of 

the time was the question of African survivals, the examination of which became much 

easier due to the oral histories collected by the WPA. Melville J. Herskovits, author of 

The Myth of the Negro Past, emerged as the most influential scholar to address this issue. 

43 Bessie Brown and Spenser Williams, "Hoodoo Blues," Columbia 14029, 3 July 
1924. For the text of this song and many others, see Catherine Yronwode, "Blues Lyrics 
and Hoodoo," Lucky Mojo Curio Company Website, 1995-1999, 
<http://www.luckymojo.eom/blues.html#performers> and 
<http://www.luckymojo.comMueshoodbrown.html> (20 May 2002). 

"The Chicago Defender, 1 March 1919, 7 July 1928; Yronwode, "Blues Lyrics 
and Hoodoo"; F. Roy Johnson, The Fabled Doctor Jim Jordan: A Story of Conjure 
(Murfreesboro: Johnson Publishing Company, 1963); James Edwin McTeer, Fifty Years 
as a Low Country Witch Doctor (Beaufort: Beaufort Book Company, 1976). See also 
Zora Neale Hurston, Moses, Man of the Mountain (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1939), 
and Zora Neale Hurston, Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica, with a 
Foreword by Ishmael Reed and Afterword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (New York: Harper 
and Row, 1990), which also deal with aspects of African and African- American magical 

Relying heavily on information from Puckett's earlier study, he argued that conjure was a 
relic of African religion, proving that blacks, like Europeans, were "a people with a 
past." 45 As usual, however, scholarly works were not the most important influence on the 
wider public. Far more visible were the popular articles which once again began to 
appear in national periodicals. For instance, in 1927, M. S. Lea's "Two-head Doctors" 
appeared in The American Mercury. In this brief article, Lea tells a series of hoodoo 
stories she learned from her African- American maid and a black night watchman during 
her residence in Washington, DC. 46 Three years later, Scribner 's Magazine published 
Ruth Bass' "Mojo: The Strange Magic That Works in the South Today," an account of 
conjure in Mississippi and Louisiana. 47 

Despite the increasing attention to conjure in popular and scholarly publications, 
works addressing hoodoo were less common than in the late nineteenth and early 
twentieth centuries. The result was that fewer readers came into contact with them. 
Conjure had already begun to fade from popular conceptions of black society. Likewise, 

45 Herskovits, 235-251. For his most important opponent, see Edward Franklin 
Frazier, Black Bourgeoisie (Glencoe: Free Press, 1957). Frazier argued that blacks lost 
their culture through the process of enslavement. Herskovits, an anthropologist, 
influenced succeeding generations of historians and other social scientists to the degree 
that it is difficult to find one who would argue that African culture died during the Middle 
Passage. For another study of African survivals, see Savannah Unit of the Georgia 
Writer's Project, Drums and Shadows: Survival Studies among the Coastal Negroes, with 
an Introduction by Charles Joyner and photographs by Muriel and Malcolm Bell, Jr. 
(Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 1986). 

46 "Two-head doctor" is a synonym for "conjurer" or "hoodoo doctor." 

47 Ruth Bass, "Mojo: The Strange Magic That Works in the South Today," 
Scribner 's Magazine 87 (1930): 83-90; M. S. Lea, "Two-head Doctors," The American 
Mercury 12 (1927): 236-240. For a similar treatment, see Carmer, Stars Fell on 

fictional accounts of the Old South gave trick doctors little attention during the period. 
The two most popular books of the era, Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind and 
Stark Young's So Red the Rose, make no mention of hoodoo doctors, who had once been 
common fixtures in tales of the plantation South. As a result of fading white 
understandings of conjure, the writers of the 1920s- 1940s treated hoodoo as a hidden part 
of black society. Hurston was able to refer to hoodoo as a "suppressed religion" with 
some justification. For instance, in "Two-head Doctors," Lea announced that before a 
conversation with her maid introduced her to hoodoo, she had "never supposed that its 
practices existed save among a handful of the swamp and plantation Negroes of the Gulf 
States." 48 Moreover, popular articles increasingly carried titles intended to shock readers 
with their announcement of the "discovery" of conjure. Essays from the late nineteenth 
century were apt to be entitled something akin to Sheperd's "Superstitions of the Negro" 
or Bacon's "Conjuring and Conjure-Doctors." Works of the 1920s - 1940s were more 
likely to carry appellations resembling Bass' "Mojo: The Strange Magic That Works in 
the South Today" or the even more sensationalist "Black Jupiter: A Voodoo King in 
Florida's Jungle - Black Magic in the Turpentine Forests," by Edwin Granberry. Hoodoo 
was no longer simply a peculiarity of everyday Southern life. Instead, it had become a 
sensational mystery that needed to be revealed to a wondering public. 49 

48 Lea, 236. 

49 Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind (New York: Macmillan, 1936); Stark 
Young, So Red the Rose (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1934); Edwin Granberry, 
"Black Jupiter: A Voodoo King in Florida's Jungle-Black Magic in the Turpentine 
Forests," with illustrations by Douglas Cleary, Travel 58 (1932): 32-35, 54. 


After the mid 1940s, conjure, already an obscure topic, disappeared from most 
Americans' conception of black society as it became less important as a means of identity 
construction. 50 For whites, World War II and the coming of the Cold War played 
important roles. On a basic level, World War II lessened the need for such federal relief 
programs as the FWP. More important, however, the war revived capitalism, rendering 
the "literature of nationhood" less vital for the construction of American identity. 
Moreover, the Red Scare reoriented whites' search for identity away from FWP-style 
"unity in diversity" in favor of simple unity. As early as 1939, the fear of Communist 
infiltration of America's intellectuals combined with economic recovery to doom the 
FWP. For both Northerners and southerners, communism had become "the other" against 
whom they defined their revitalized system of capitalism and democracy. 51 In such a 
world, blacks were simply less important to whites' identity construction than they had 
once been. 

As with whites, the Cold War limited the future visibility of conjure in the black 
community by limiting hoodoo's importance to African- American identity. During the 
Second World War, the labor-led Civil Rights Movement made substantial gains, 
achieving the establishment of the Fair Employment Practices Commission and the 
desegregation of the armed forces. Though the working-class never seized upon conjure 
as an ideological expression of blackness, it had always been more familiar with hoodoo 

50 The most important exception to this general trend was the medical field's 
discovery of conjure as an important psychsomatic force. See, for instance, "Voodoo 
Kills by Despair," Science News Letter 67 (1955): 294. Unfortunately, medicine's 
isolation from the social science limited such articles' influence on the broader society. 

5, Penkower, 181-214. 

than middle-class blacks. A successful labor-led Civil Rights movement might have 
provided a vehicle for hoodoo to reenter American consciousness. Soon after peace, 
however, the Cold War brought the movement's promise to an end. As fear of 
communism gripped America, government suppression of leftists and militant labor 
undermined the foundation of black efforts. Though the early Civil Rights Movement 
had never made folk beliefs an important part of its identity, its collapse limited the 
power of working class blacks to be heard by both whites and middle-class members of 
their own race. Without any significant focus of resistance, Jim Crow persisted 
undisturbed until the mid-1950s. 52 

When a new Civil Rights Movement exploded following the Supreme's Court's 
move against segregation in the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ofTopeka, Kansas, it 
was ill-suited to promote conjure as a positive element of black culture. The movement's 
leaders, drawn primarily from the black middle-class, held to their long-term belief that 
hoodoo was a negative feature of their society. More important, this phase of the Civil 
Rights Movement made no major effort to incorporate any part of black culture into its 
goals. On the contrary, the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr. advocated a "color blind 
society" of full social, economic, and political equality with whites obtained through 
Christian brotherhood. One unintentional side effect of this approach was the temporary 
muting of black cultural nationalism, a potential route to the rediscovery of conjure. 
Moreover, in its early years, the movement did little but further divide the races 

"Richard Dalfiume, Desegregation of the U.S. Armed Forces (Columbia: 
University of Missouri Press, 1969); John Morton Blum, V Was for Victory: Politics and 
American Culture during World War II (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976); 
Korstad and Lichtenstein, 786-811. 

culturally. While only a minority of whites actively fought the movement, even fewer 
joined it. Even though it eventually achieved it goals of ending legal segregation and 
halting official discrimination in the workplace and at the polls, it failed to erase the 
racism that compelled whites to reject social contact with African- Americans and 
prevented them from appreciating the black folk culture that had once been such an 
important part of white identity. 53 

Professional folklorists, who had continued to study conjure on a small scale, 
likewise lost interest as they adopted problem-solving as the focus of their work. In 1958, 
Vladimir Propp's Morphology of the Folktale was printed in English. Published in 
Russian thirty years earlier, the already-influential book helped reshape the field through 
its assertion that folktales throughout the world share common structures and underlying 
meanings. One result was that folklore lost its effectiveness as means of asserting 
regional or national identities, divorcing it from popular audiences. Nevertheless, some 
books addressing conjure continued to see print, but these were increasingly studies of 
specifically black folklore, such as Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps' Book of Negro 
Folklore. Thus, they failed to appeal to a broad audience in an era of racial turmoil. 
More important, articles addressing conjure became less common in such scholarly 
publications as the Journal of American Folklore and virtually disappeared from popular 

53 David L. Chappell, Inside Agitators: White Southerners in the Civil Rights 
Movement (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994); William Henry Chafe, 
Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina and the Black Struggle for 
Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980). For overviews of the political 
goals of the movement, see Steven F. Lawson, Black Ballots: Voting Rights in the South, 
1945-1969 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1976), and Steven F. Lawson, In 
Pursuit of Power: Southern Blacks and Electoral Politics, 1965-1982 (New York: 
Columbia University Press, 1985). For King's role, see Taylor Branch, Parting the 
Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988); 

magazines. 54 On the rare occasions when a journalist saw fit to print such articles, they 
usually echoed the words of journalist Edward D. Clayton, who referred to New Orleans 
Voodoo and hoodoo as "a lucrative racket . . . practiced surreptitiously with weird 
mumbo-jumbo in flats around the city by a handful of self-styled "doctors" and 
"reverends" who prey on naive innocents." 55 Abandoned by even its most steadfast 
friend, hoodoo faded into invisibility. 

Today, interest in conjure is again reviving. By the 1970s, black magical beliefs 
were becoming more apparent, largely due to an influx of Latin Americans of African 
descent, who brought such syncretic religions as Santeria into the United States. 56 

54 The most important exception to this rule was Norman E. Whitten, 
"Contemporary Patterns of Malign Occultism among Negroes in North Carolina," 
Journal of American Folklore 75 (1962): 310-325. Whitten's essay set the trend for later 
folkloric investigations of conjure by seeking to identify a peculiar logic behind African- 
American magic. 

55 Vladimir I. Propp, Morphology of the Folktale, International Journal of 
American Linguistics, vol. 24, no. 3, part 3 (1958); Langston Hughes and Arna 
Bontemps, eds., The Book of Negro Folklore (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 
1959), see especially 103-105, 183-207; Edward T. Clayton, "The Truth about Voodoo," 
Ebony, April 1951, 54-61, quoted 54. 

"Whether driven from their homes by political oppression or economic distress, 
these new arrivals brought elements of their distinct cultures with them, including their 
religions. While most Latin American immigrants professed Catholicism, many also 
practiced a form of Afro-European syncretic religion, the most important of which has 
been Cuban Santeria. As Santeria spread throughout both northern and southern cities, 
most noticeably New York and Miami, it became increasingly visible in the press. 
Though it differs from African-American hoodoo and Voodoo in its gods and central 
tenets, native-born white Americans have often failed to distinguish between it and 
indigenous American folk religions, as is clear in titles of such works as E. Tivnan's 1979 
article, "The Voodoo That New Yorkers Do," which lumps Santeria and other syncretic 
faiths under the misleading title of "Voodoo." Other important syncretic religions which 
have recently appeared in the United States are Bahamian Obeah, Mexican Espiritismo, 
Trinidadian Shango, and Brazilian Candomble. During the 1990s, Haitian Voodoo has 
also grown, due to the flight of many Haitians from political turmoil. See E. Tivnan, 
"The Voodoo That New Yorkers Do," New York Times Magazine 1 82 (December 2, 

Nevertheless, most authors continued to view African- American magic as a sign of 
backwardness. For example, in July of 1976, Hamilton Bims, published "Would You 
Believe It . . . Superstition Lives!" in Ebony, giving hoodoo a prominent place in a gallery 
of disreputable beliefs and practices. 57 This dismissive approach began to decline as the 
ideas of cultural pluralism, postmodernism, and the New Age Movement increasingly 
caught hold throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, allowing Americans to construct 
individual and group identities free from an overarching national culture. First 
propounded by philosopher Horace Kallen and adopted by anthropologists Franz Boas 
and Margaret Mead, the idea of cultural pluralism proclaimed equality among the world's 
diverse cultures. Following the success of the Civil Rights Movement and the arrival of 
the new Latin American immigrants, it gained widespread popular support by the 1980s, 
opening a path to the acceptance of conjure as a valid expression of black identity. 58 
As cultural pluralism gained strength, so did the intellectual trend known as 
postmodernism. While scholars have yet to offer a definitive account of the meaning, 
influence, and worth of postmodern ideas, they tend to agree on many of its distinctive 
characteristics. The most important of these to the study of conjure has been the denial of 

1979): 182-192. For another typical article on Santeria, see Fred Grimm, "Ritual 
Sacrifices Turn Miami River Red," The Miami Herald 30 May 1981, 1B-2B. For a 
scholarly work on Santeria, see Brandon, Santeria from Africa to the New World. 

"Hamilton Bims, "Would You Believe It . . . Superstition Lives!" Ebony, July 

58 See Horace Meyer Kallen, Culture and Democracy in the United States, 
American Immigration Collection, Series II (New York: Arno Press, 1970); Franz Boas, 
Anthropology and Modern Life, New and revised ed. (New York: W. W. Norton and 
Company, 1932), and Margaret Mead, Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study 
of Primitive Youth for Western Civilization, with a Foreword by Franz Boas (New York: 
Blue Ribbon Books, 1932). 

any moral authority outside of the individual. In practice, this has led to an ideology 
which touts fragmentation, plurality, and indeterminacy as positive values. In such a 
worldview, hoodoo is the equal of Christianity and other world religions. 59 

Together, cultural pluralism and postmodernism prepared Americans for the 
reappearance of hoodoo in print, but it was the revival of mysticism and magical practices 
during the 1970s that ultimately pushed conjure into the public eye. Known as the New 
Age Movement, this countercultural collection of religions mirrors the secular forces of 
cultural pluralism and postmodernism, and like them, it rejects centralization and ultimate 
authority. According to author Melody Baker, New Age belief consists of "a 
commitment to spiritual growth which people pursue in different manners, many 
considered nontraditional in Western culture" in which "dogma and the absence of 
questioning are seen as obstacles to growth." 60 Beginning with imported Eastern 
mysticism during the late 1960s, the New Age movement quickly drew other occult 
practices under its wings, including forms of herbal medicine, extraterrestrial worship, 
and various forms of witchcraft, the most noticeable of which has been Wicca, a 
pseudohistorical mixture of magic and goddess worship. 61 

59 David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of 
Cultural Change (Cambridge and Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), see especially 43. See also 
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Disuniting of America (New York and London: W. W. 
Norton and Company, 1992). 

60 Melody Baker, A New Consciousness: The True Spirit of the New Age (Duluth: 
New Thought Publishing, 1991), 15-16. 

61 Mel D. Faber, New Age Thinking: A Psychoanalytic Critique, Religion and 
Beliefs Series, no. 5 (University of Ottawa Press, 1996), see especially 1-16; Robert 
Basil, Not Necessarily the New Age: Critical Essays (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1988). 
For the effects of cultural pluralism and postmodernism on the field of history, see 
Novick, 415-629. 

Initially, conjure failed to attract much attention from New Agers. It was too 
strongly linked to American culture to be sufficiently iconoclastic. Nevertheless, a few 
authors have sought to merge hoodoo into the larger New Age worldview. One of the 
earliest of these was South Carolinian James Edwin McTeer, author of Fifty Years as a 
Low Country Witch Doctor. McTeer, a white of European descent also practiced African- 
American hoodoo, working alongside the famed Doctor Buzzard. Though he claimed to 
be "the last remaining tie with the true African witch doctors," McTeer explained his 
powers with the typical New Age jargon of astral planes, extrasensory perception, and 
mediumship. 62 Several recent works on hoodoo also follow the same course. For 
instance, in Company of Prophets: African-American Psychics, Healers, and Visionaries, 
Joyce Elaine Noll refers to mediums, astral projection, and reincarnation alongside 
traditional hoodoo beliefs. In short, by building on the foundation of cultural pluralism 
and postmodernism, the New Age Movement has both lessened the stigma attached to 
blacks' magical practices and brought positive views of conjure to public awareness. 63 
Though New Age ideology has been primarily a provenance of white society, it 
has also opened a way for African- Americans to seize upon conjure as a symbol of their 
identity. Black cultural nationalism has provided the medium through which hoodoo has 
regained a prominent role in African- American literature. As the equality-based Civil 
Rights Movement declined following its string of legal and political victories during the 
early 1960s, the Black Power Movement took its place. Inspired largely by the writings 

62 McTeer, Low Country Witch Doctor, 12-20, quoted 27. 

63 Joyce Elaine Noll, Company of Prophets: African American Psychics, Healers, 
and Visionaries (St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 1991). 

of Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael, its militant adherents sought African- American 
autonomy and self-reliance. Some joined militant organizations like the Black Panther 
Party, which was prepared to use force to advance their aims, including equal political 
and social rights, exemption from military service, and full employment for blacks. More 
important to the study of conjure, however, many proponents of Black Power worked to 
construct a version of African- American history and culture that placed blacks' 
achievements on par with that of whites. By doing so, members of the Black Power 
Movement engaged in a form of "identity politics," which offered an alternative to 
Eurocentric ideas of civilization and progress. 64 

In an environment of New Age ideology and black cultural nationalism, hoodoo 
became a symbol of African- American resistance to white culture. The works of poet 
Ishmael Reed exemplify this trend. To Reed, the hoodoo doctor was and is a trickster 
who subverts white dominance through apparent acceptance of his or her assigned role, 

M For two of the most popular proponents of Black Power, see Stokely Carmichael 
and Charles V. Hamilton, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation America (New York: 
Random House, 1967), and Malcolm X with the assistance of Alex Haley, The 
Autobiography of Malcolm X, with an Introduction by M. S. Handler and an Epilogue by 
Alex Haley (New York: Grove Press, 1965). See also Lawson, In Pursuit of Power, and 
Schlesinger, 63-71, 73-99. Black Power's drive for autonomy formed the basis of what 
would be known as "Afrocentrism" by the late 1980s. Afrocentrism is an intellectual 
movement that locates the origins of Western culture in ancient Egypt, which its 
proponents imagine to have been peopled by blacks. Intended as a form of mental 
compensation for past injustices, this expression of "multiculturalism" is simply a form of 
cultural chauvinism, which often links closely to racist ideologies, such as those 
propounded by the Nation of Islam. 

while "driven by a mocking wit that subverts white authority and destroys white illusions 
of superiority." 65 

The influence of Reed's highly intellectual writings pales in comparison with that 
of works aimed at black popular audiences. The most important of these has been James 
Haskins' Voodoo and Hoodoo, which offers a brief history of conjure, summarized from 
Puckett and other earlier authors, followed by a lengthy collection of spells. Later writers 
have followed Haskins' example, providing both general information on the history and 
practice of conjure and "practical" knowledge of herbal remedies, spells, and divination. 
In such works, conjure is an integral part of blacks' African heritage, to be celebrated, not 
condemned. 66 

While Haskins and his imitators have helped to make hoodoo an acceptable part 
of blackness, a few have followed the example of Ishmael Reed, making individual 
conjurers symbols of African- American strength. Marie Laveau, the famed nineteenth- 
century "Voodoo Queen" of New Orleans has been most commonly cast in this role, 
becoming a personification of black feminine strength. For example, for a 1983 issue of 
Ms., Jewell Parker Rhodes wrote that it is Laveau's "spirit that, generation after 

65 James Lindroth, "Images of Subversion: Ishmael Reed and the Hoodoo 
Trickster," African American Review 30 (1996): 185-196, quoted 185. For some of his 
more pertinent works, see Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo (Garden City: Doubleday, 1972), 
and Ishmael Reed, Conjure: Selected Poems, 1963-1970 (Amherst: University of 
Massachusetts Press, 1972). See also Shamoon Zamir, "An Interview with Ishmael 
Reed," Callaloo 17 (1994): 1131-1157. 

66 James Haskins, Voodoo and Hoodoo: The Craft as Revealed by Traditional 
Practitioners, new ed. (Lanham, New York, and London: Scarborough House, 1990). 



generation, enters a woman's body whenever a woman assumes power." 67 Khephra 
Burns followed a similar course in her 1992 article, "The Queen of Voodoo," stating, "No 
woman has ever been more revered - and feared - than New Orleans' Marie Laveau, who 
wielded true Black Power." 68 Hoodoo has come a long way from the late nineteenth 
century, when it was but a survival of Negro primitiveness. 69 

How does this third wave of interest compare to those that came before? Its 
growing importance to blacks can be seen by comparing two dictionaries of African- 
American colloquialisms compiled by Clarence Major. In 1970, Major published his 
Dictionary of Afro-American Slang. It has only a few entries which describe conjuring 
practices, most notably "conjuring lodge," which the author defines as "a place where 
mediumistic practices could openly take place." 70 Entries for terms like "hoodoo," 
"mojo," "tricking," and even "Voodoo" are absent. Twenty-four years later, Major 
produced a revised version of his dictionary, renamed Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of 
African-American Slang. Not only does the new version include the missing terms, it 
expounds upon them in ways that emphasize the importance of conjure to black history 
and culture. For instance, Juba to Jive defines a "conjuring lodge" as a "sacred house; 

67 Jewell Parker Rhodes, "Marie Laveau, Voodoo Queen," Ms. 28 (January 1983): 
28-31, quoted 31. 

68 Khephra Burns, "The Queen of Voodoo," Essence 23 (May 1992): 80. 

69 See also, Faith Mitchell, Hoodoo Medicine: Gullah Herbal Remedies 
(Columbia: Summerhouse Press, 1 999), and Ray T. Malbrough, Charms, Spells, and 
Formulas: For the Making and Use ofGris-Gris, Herb Candles, Doll Magick, Incenses, 
Oils and Powders . . . To Gain Love, protection, Prosperity, Luck, and Prophetic 
Dreams, Llewellyn's Practical Magick Series (St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 1986). 

70 Clarence Major, Dictionary of Afro-American Slang (New York: International 
Publications, 1970), s.v. "conjuring lodge." 


church; stemming from their belief in the power of the conjurer, black Americans during 
slavery held this as a place in which mediumistic rites and principles could be respected 
and practiced. It is not unlike the Zuni and Hopi kiva." 71 Nevertheless, while books on 
conjure, ranging from Haskins' Voodoo and Hoodoo to Doktor Snake 's Voodoo Spell 
Book: Spells, Curses and Folk Magic for All Your Needs (with a free "Lucky Mojo 
Doll"), are easily available in bookstores and on the Internet, hoodoo is beyond the sphere 
of most Americans' conception of black society. 72 Gone are the days when major news 
magazines carried tales of conjure as common fare. Moreover, those works which do 
appear aim at African- American and New Age audiences, excluding most white general 
readers. Nevertheless, hoodooists have begun to make occasional appearances in 
bestselling works, most notably John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, 
a fictionalized history of a Savannah, Georgia, murder, which includes a conjure woman 
as an important character. Such works are the exception, however. Conjure has not 
become the important factor of regional and racial identity that it was during the late 
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Its study has likewise failed to become an 
important part of public works projects as during the days of the FWP. The hoodoo 

71 Clarence Major, Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang (New 
York: Penguin Books, 1994), s.v. "Hoodoo," "Mojo," "Tricking," and "Voodoo," quoted 
from s.v. "Conjuring lodge." 

72 Ironically, interest in conjure has been less centered on New Orleans than in the 
past, with a growing number of books examining magic among the Gullah people of the 
South Carolina Sea Islands. McTeer's Fifty Years as a Low Country Witch Doctor was 
the most important influence on this trend. For a entertaining collection based heavily on 
McTeer's work, see Roger Pinckney, Blue Roots: African-American Folk Magic of the 
Gullah People (St. Paul: Llwellyn Publications, 2000). 

doctor, though perhaps not fully invisible, remains at best translucent in popular 
conceptions of black culture. 73 

Scholarly interest in conjure has fared even worse. For instance, hoodoo receives 
minimal attention in the standard works on slave culture, most of which appeared during 
the 1970s and 1980s. Conjure commands only brief mentions in such works as John W. 
Blassingame's The Slave Community, George P. Rawick's From Sunup to Sundown, and 
Charles Joyner's Down by the Riverside. Other books, like Eugene Genovese's Roll, 
Jordan, Roll, Lawrence Levine's Black Culture and Black Consciousness, and Albert J. 
Raboteau's Slave Religion devote more space to conjuring. Nevertheless, these accounts 
are largely descriptive, and their analyses generally summarize the conclusions set forth 
in Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro and other early works. 74 

Scholars in general and historians in particular are reluctant to delve more deeply 
in their studies of hoodoo for a variety of reasons. First, relatively few primary 
documents address conjure. Sources on topics such as slave society, black culture, and 

73 Doktor Snake, Doktor Snake 's Voodoo Spellbook: Spells, Curses and Folk 
Magic for All Your Needs (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000); John Berendt, Midnight 
in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story (New York: Random House, 1994). 

74 John Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum 
South, 2 nd ed. (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 40-41, 109-1 13; 
George P. Rawick, ed., The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography (Westport: 
Greenwood Publishing, 1972), vol. 1, From Sunup to Sundown: The Making of the Black 
Community, by George P. Rawick, 48-51; Eugene Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The 
World the Slaves Made (New York: Random House, 1972), 215-224,231, 255; Lawrence 
W. Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Thought from 
Slavery to Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 55-80; Albert J. 
Raboteau, Slave Religion: The "Invisible Institution " in the Antebellum South (Oxford 
and New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 75-87, 275-288; Charles Joyner, Down 
by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community (Urbana and Chicago: University of 
Chicago Press, 1984), 144-152. 

even African-American Christianity are plentiful, making their study much simpler. Far 
more important than the lack of primary materials, however, is religious prejudice. 
Scholars tend to shy away from supernatural topics because of their own secular 
worldviews. They prefer to rely on race, class, gender, and the like to explain historical 
development. The result is that they often minimize the role of religious beliefs in 
history, particularly in their treatments of the modern world. While intellectuals tend to 
be irreligious, they respect magic even less. After all, virtually no one, scholar or 
layperson, would admit to believing in sorcery as an effective practice. A paucity of 
scholarship has been the consequence. Racial issues have also kept hoodoo outside of 
mainstream scholarship. For some African-American scholars, conjure retains its 
negative image from years past. They are unwilling to tout "superstition" as a major 
force in black history. On the other hand, those who have accepted conjure as part of 
their African- American identity frequently oppose any attempt by white authors to 
address the topic. 75 

Only three notable exceptions to the scholarly trend have appeared. The first of 
these to appear was Harry Middleton Hyatt's Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft-Rootwork, 
published in five volumes between 1970 and 1978. This massive work is a collection of 
transcripts of interviews addressing hoodoo, mostly undertaken during the 1930s and 

75 Lest the readers dismiss my brief discussion of the racial politics as mere 
speculation, I must state that I have personally encountered it. For example, I once 
attempted to publish an essay on hoodoo. An anonymous reviewer rejected it on the 
grounds that it was "racially insensitive" and "insulting." On another occasion, an 
African- American author who had published works on hoodoo strongly discouraged me 
from writing on the subject. One of his stated reasons was that I was not black. 


1940s. 76 Though it contains a wealth of primary material, its chaotic organization and 
brief printing run of only six hundred copies for the first two volumes have minimized its 
influence. 77 

Theophus Smith's investigation of African- American theology, Conjuring 
Culture: Biblical Formations of Black America, has likewise had little impact on studies 
of conjure. Smith argues that West African religions mingled with European Christianity 
to produce a "conjuring culture," still evident in modern black society. Conjurers, says 
Smith, must be recognized as more than sorcerers. On the contrary, their magic offers a 
means to magically heal, or transform, society, and within this worldview, the Bible has 
become the chief conjure tool. Like the work of A. M. Bacon, almost one hundred years 
before, Conjuring Culture outlines an underlying logic to black folk beliefs through its 
classification of the books of the Bible by their specific magical function. 78 Smith's book 
has largely failed to influence scholars due to its highly-specialized approach. In addition 
to its narrow focus, its prose is a difficult mass of technical terms, comprehensible only to 
scholars of theology. 79 

76 Hyatt became interested in conjure while conducting research for his pioneering 
book, Folk-Lore from Adams County Illinois, a work which he intended as a record of all 
aspects of folklore within a single rural county. He amassed much information dealing 
with magic, including hoodoo, which he later included in his book. See Harry Middleton 
Hyatt, Folk-Lore from Adam 's County Illinois (New York: Memoirs of the Alma Egan 
Hyatt Foundation, 1935), especially 455-545. 

77 Harry Middleton Hyatt, Hoodoo - Conjuration - Witchcraft - Rootwork, 5 vols., 
Memoirs of the Alma Egan Hyatt Foundation (Hannibal: Western Publishing Company, 

78 Smith uses the spelling "conjuror" to emphasize his interpretation. 

79 Theophus H. Smith, Conjuring Culture: Biblical Formations of Black America 
(New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994). 

By far the most readable and innovative work to appear in recent years has been 
Carolyn Morrow Long's 2001 book, Spiritual Merchants: Religion, Magic, and 
Commerce. Following brief summaries of antebellum and early twentieth-century 
hoodoo, Spiritual Merchants examines the development of conjure as a commodity, 
manufactured and distributed to "spiritual supply stores" for the use of do-it-yourself 
conjurers. Long's work is one of the most important works on hoodoo yet produced, but 
its author is not a professional scholar, which will hamper its acceptance by the academic 
community. Only time will reveal the extent of its influence. Despite the efforts of 
Hyatt, Smith, and Long conjure remains unfamiliar territory to most students of black 
culture. 80 

Though studies of conjure have grown more numerous over the past three 
decades, they have failed to return hoodoo to most Americans' conception of black 
society. Moreover, the third wave of interest in conjure cannot compare to the two which 
erupted during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and during the years 
between the world wars. Hoodoo's continued obscurity leaves a fertile field for 
historians, who have yet to answer several important questions. For example, the old 
problem of whether conjure is primarily an African or European legacy has yet to be 
satisfactorily resolved. Recent authors addressing hoodoo have tended to uncritically 
assume that it is of primarily African origin, giving little attention to other influences. In 
addition, so far, only Caroline Morrow Long has examined hoodoo's regional variations 
in any detail. Most important, almost all authors, scholarly or popular, have treated 

80 Carolyn Morrow Long, Spiritual Merchants: Religion, Magic, and Commerce 
(Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2001). 

conjure as a timeless phenomenon. On the contrary, it adapted to changing 
circumstances, remaining an important part of African- American society from antebellum 
times to the present. 




One spring day in 1890, Samuel C. Taylor took a train which briefly stopped just 

south of Tuscumbia, Tennessee. There, an unusual African- American man boarded the 

train. His shaved head sported a fist-sized tuft just above the forehead. The stranger's 

clothes were equally bizarre, consisting most notably of three coats, all composed of a 

patchwork of multiple materials and colors. Under his coats, numerous chains of brass, 

silver plate, and iron encircled his body from neck to waist. A peg in place of his right 

leg completed the odd picture. During his brief stay on the train, he conversed with 

numerous passengers, including a northern immigrant seeking political office, who asked 

the black man for his backing in the upcoming election. Throughout his conversations, 

the stranger sipped from a bottle which Taylor initially believed contained gin. After a 

half hour, the man left the train. Through the words of a black porter, Taylor learned that 

he had just encountered a hoodoo doctor. The bottle from which the conjurer drank 

contained a magical potion. To his surprise, he also found that the hoodooist was "by far 

the most influential man in [that] part of the state," a leader among members of his race. 1 

Moreover, the hoodoo doctor had studied medicine and used his potion, along with a 

'Samuel C. Taylor, "A Hoodoo Doctor, 30 April 1890," photocopy, p. 80, 
William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. 


magical ring and incantations, to cure a variety of afflictions, with a supposedly ninety- 
percent success rate. 2 

As Samuel Taylor's encounter illustrates, nineteenth-century conjurers were often 
central figures in African- American society. Taylor's conjurer was a potent political 
force among members of his race, to the extent that he undertook monthly tours of his 
"constituency." Furthermore, as the narrator discovered, compared to most blacks of his 
day, the hoodoo doctor was a wealthy man, wearing a suit when "off-duty" and living in 
an expensive home just outside of town. Although operating in the worldly realm of 
politics, he also relied on the supernatural to cure sickness. Moreover, it was his occult 
knowledge which gave him social prestige. 3 In the nineteenth-century African- American 
world, hoodoo doctors held a major stake in both the "natural" world of politics and 
economics and the shadowy world of the supernatural. 

The key to conjurers' temporal power was the African- American belief in the 
supernatural potency of hoodoo. How widespread were such convictions? 
Archaeological investigation in Virginia and Maryland has uncovered remains of 
conjuring "caches," the contents of bags, bottles, and the like that once held magical 
materials, in slave dwellings as early as 1702. Occasionally, the historical record also 
reveals examples of colonial conjuring. The best known of these was the event which set 
off the Salem witchcraft scare. The adolescent girls who initiated the accusations began 
their involvement with magic by practicing fortune-telling with a slave by the name of 
Tituba, who had learned some magic during an earlier period of enslavement in 

2 Ibid, 77-80. 
3 Ibid. 

Barbados. 4 In addition, references to slave "doctors" in colonial and early republican 
newspapers most likely refer to root workers, rather than practitioners of scientific 
medicine. For instance, a 1792 article in The Massachusetts Magazine reported on a 
South Carolina slave, named Cesar, who had reportedly discovered the cures for 
rattlesnake bites and for ingested poisons. The South Carolina Assembly proved so 
grateful that they "purchased his freedom, and gave him an annuity of one hundred 
pounds." 5 While the Assembly doubtless thought of Cesar's cures as scientifically based, 
blacks along the Atlantic often understood poisoning as a result of malevolent spells. 6 A 
large number of blacks continued to believe in conjure on the eve of the Civil War, as 
demonstrated in the slave narratives collected by the Works Progress Administration 
during the Great Depression. According to Sam Jordan, originally from Alabama, all 
slaves "wore a silver dime on a raw cotton thread around their ankles to keep from being 
voodooed." 7 Even if Jordan's estimate that all slaves believed in conjure was an 
exaggeration, the level of faith was high in the antebellum South. Furthermore, conjure 
was not the provenance of a single state or region. Long present along the Atlantic Coast 

4 Though authors have traditionally portrayed Tituba as black, she was more likely 
a South American Indian or mixed Native American and black. See Elaine G. Breslaw, 
"Tituba's Confession: The Multicultural Dimensions of the 1692 Salem Witch-Hunt," 
Ethnohistory 44 (1997): 535-556. 

5 "The Negro Cesar's Cure for Poison," The Massachusetts Magazine 4 (1792): 

6 For a later instance in which "poison" specifically denotes magical influence, see 
R., L., G., and A., 30. 

7 Sam Jordan, interview by J.S. Thomas (Oklahoma City, OK, 7 June 1937), The 
WPA Oklahoma Slave Narratives, T. Lindsay Baker and Julie P. Baker, eds. (Norman and 
London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996), 234-235. 

and in Louisiana, hoodoo had spread throughout the South by 1860. During the 1850s, 
Abbe Emmanuel Henri Dieudonne Domenech, a Catholic missionary, reported an 
encounter with hoodoo along the Texas-Mexico border. According to Domenech' s 
report, a young European man went insane after refusing to marry a woman he had 
seduced. The man recovered only by following the advice of a black native of New 
Orleans, who told him that he was under the vengeful influence of Voodoo and that only 
marriage to his former sweetheart would cure him. Once the wedding took place, the 
man recovered. 8 

African-Americans' faith in conjure remained strong following emancipation. 
Although most black and white educational reformers thought of hoodoo as "an absurd 
superstitious folly that should speedily be rooted out," they nevertheless recognized that it 
remained strong in the South, "where people are not so enlightened as they are in other 
parts of the country." 9 Some observers noted an increase in belief in hoodoo following 
emancipation. Historian Philip A. Bruce stated that freedom fostered conjure by 
removing blacks from close contact with whites, who had held slaves' natural 
emotionalism and intellectual predilections toward "superstition" in check. The writings 
of some planters identify an identical trend. James Sparkman, a South Carolina planter, 
reported that blacks relapsed into "fetishism" following emancipation. Of course, Bruce 

8 Mark P. Leone and Gladys-Marie Fry, "Conjuring in the Big House Kitchen: An 
Interpretation of African American Belief Systems Based on the Uses of Archaeology and 
Folklore Sources," Journal of American Folklore 1 12 (1999): 383; Breslaw, 535-556; 
Emmanuel Henri Dieudonne Domenech, Missionary Adventures in Texas and Mexico: A 
Personal Narrative of Six Years ' Sojourn in Those Regions (London: Longman, Brown, 
Green, Longmans, and Roberts, 1858), 303-308. 

9 R., L., G., and A., 30. 

and Sparkman, as members of the white ruling class, are questionable as sources of black 
folk belief. Bruce, in particular, was trying to use conjure to demonstrate that blacks had 
descended into savagery following the removal of the benefits of direct white oversight. 
At any rate, exact figures for believers are unavailable for the postbellum period, but 
informants for Harry Middleton Hyatt's Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft-Rootwork 
provided several estimates made by trick doctors practicing in the 1930s and 1940s, many 
of whom learned their craft in the previous century. In addition to being more exact than 
Bruce and Sparkman, virtually all of Hyatt's interviewees were African- American. These 
hoodoo doctors from areas as widely separated as Norfolk, Virginia and New Orleans, 
Louisiana, agreed that more than half of African Americans believed in such magic. 
"Undercover Man" of New Orleans provided one of the lowest estimates, simply stating 
that a majority believed, but both "Faith Doctor" of Little Rock, Arkansas, and "Zorro the 
Mentalist" of Norfolk, Virginia, suggested figures as high as nine out often. These 
interviews, though carried out long after the demise of slavery, testify to the strength of 
African- Americans' beliefs, despite decades of improved education and exposure to 
scientific principles following emancipation. 10 

Surprisingly, a number of Hyatt's informants argued that whites were also strong 
believers in hoodoo, with "Faith Doctor" maintaining that 50 percent held faith in, and 
sometimes practiced, conjure. Contemporary sources bear out this assertion. Whether 
learned from black "mammies," personal encounters with conjurers, or otherwise, the fear 

10 Bruce, 120-121; James R. Sparkman, "The Negro," Sparkman Family Papers, 
Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; quoted in 
Charles Joyner, Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community (Urbana and 
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 144; Hyatt, Hoodoo-Conjuration- 
Witchcraft-Rootwork, ii-iii. 

of hoodoo maintained a firm grasp over a significant portion of white Southerners. For 
example, Martin Posey, a South Carolinian planter, hired a root doctor, named Jeff, to 
keep his slaves healthy. Upon discovering that Jeff practiced magic, Posey offered to buy 
his freedom in exchange for killing his new master's wife. Jeff, however, apparently 
insisted on obtaining his freedom first and did not do so." Similarly, according to 
Bertram Wyatt-Brown's Southern Honor, white Virginians feared conjurers because of 
their supposed ability to kill or seduce whites by using magic. In New Orleans, observers 
of Voodoo rites regularly reported white participation, and Louisiana's Creole elites were 
not above using black magic to their own ends. 12 

While whites' belief in the hoodoo of the supposedly inferior blacks may be 
surprising to some, it is less so when one bears in mind that the peoples of Europe and the 
American colonies had a long believed in their own forms of witchcraft. The New 
England witch scares of the seventeenth century were cases in point. Backwoods 
southern whites continued to fear sorcery well into the twentieth century, stories of which 
are told throughout Appalachia to this day. A few whites even practiced African- 

1 'Posey eventually convinced another slave, named Appling, to murder his wife. 
After Appling succeeded in drowning the hapless woman, Posey murdered him to hide 
the crime. Eventually, Posey was convicted of both crimes. 

12 Helen Tunnicliff Catterall, ed., Judicial Cases Concerning American Slavery 
and the Negro, 5 vols. (New York: Negro Universities Press, 1926; reprint, 1968), vol. 2, 
413-414. See also Marie B. Williams, "A Night with the Voudous," Appleton 's Journal: 
A Magazine of General Literature 13 (1875): 404; Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Southern 
Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South (New York and Oxford: Oxford University 
Press, 1982), 313, 315-316, 424-425; Helen Pitkin, An Angel by Brevet: A Story of 
Modern New Orleans (Philadelphia and London: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1904). 
Pitkin's novel, though fictional, relies on factual accounts of upper-class white 
involvement with African- American magic. For further examples, see Robert Tallant, 
Voodoo in New Orleans (New York: Macmillan, 1946; reprint, Gretna: Pelican 
Publishing Company, 1998). 

American hoodoo as a profession. The most significant of these was Dr. Buzzard of 
South Carolina. His fame was such that a succession of black conjurers adopted his 
sobriquet. 13 

Did this widespread faith in hoodoo clash with Christianity? A few blacks 
accepted the Biblical injunction, "There shall not be found among you any one that 
maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an 
observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch, or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar 
spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer." 14 One such was William Wells Brown, a former 
slave, who equated hoodoo and the service of the devil in My Southern Home. For 
average African- Americans, however, Christianity and conjure were not mutually 
exclusive systems of belief. Most nineteenth-century black Americans considered 
themselves Christians. Nevertheless, conjure remained an important part of their 
understandings of the supernatural. The reason for this was that hoodoo filled a separate 
niche in their spiritual world. Unlike Christian ministers, conjurers performed rituals for 
the sake of controlling or manipulating spiritual powers, not for worship purposes. Thus, 
conjure was a form of utilitarian, pragmatic spirituality. Nevertheless, some Christian 
ministers also acted as hoodoo doctors. For instance, Mary Livermore, a northerner who 
spent three years on an antebellum plantation, recorded that she once encountered a 

13 Patrick W. Gainer, Witches, Ghosts, and Signs: Folklore of the Southern 
Appalachians (Morgantown: Seneca Books, 1975), 135-177; Hyatt, Hoodoo- 
Conjuration- Witchcraft-Rootwork, iii-iv. 

14 Deuteronomy 18:10-11. 

combination conjurer-preacher, known as "Uncle" Aaron, who exhorted believers to 
follow God from the pulpit, while raising evil spirits outside of the walls of the church. 15 

The power of hoodoo translated into enormous influence within the black 
community for successful conjurers. Traditionally, historians have depicted black 
preachers as the most important leaders to emerge from within African- American 
communities. Although the influence of preachers was undeniable, they had powerful 
rivals in conjurers. While black preachers held sway over their congregations as teachers 
of God's word, who brought messages of righteousness, hope, and love, hoodooists had 
the power to harm and heal on a whim. 16 Some observers asserted that conjurers, not 
preachers, were the strongest power in black communities. Writing in 1889, Philip Bruce 
stated that a "trick doctor is invested with even more power than a preacher, since he is 
regarded with the respect that fear excites." 17 While Bruce was a white author, who 
displayed the condescending racism of his time, black observers often agreed with his 
conclusions. In 1878, a person going by the initial "S.," wrote to a former instructor at 
the Hampton Institute to report on his experience teaching black children in Virginia. 
The letter, later published in Southern Workman, stated that fear of "cunning," an 
uncommon Virginia term for African- American conjure, was pervasive. Moreover, 
though the author protested that he or she did not believe in conjure, the testimonies of so 
many eyewitnesses to its effects persuaded him or her to write, "I have not said a word 

15 Brown, My Southern Home, 68; Mary A. Livermore, The Story of My Life, or the 
Sunshine and Shadow of Seventy Years (Hartford: A. D. Worthington and Company, 
1897), 254-258. 

16 Raboteau, 231-239. 

17 Bruce, 115. 

about cunning since, and never intend to; for they can poison you anyhow, for the devil 
seems to be at the helm . . . They die here like sheep." 18 

Fear of conjure was a result of hoodooists' reputed ability to harm others through 
magic. Trick doctors typically cast their spells at the urging of a paying client, but many 
simply practiced their craft out of personal animus to their victims. One of conjurers' 
most dreaded and common means of inflicting death or serious illness on unwitting 
victims was causing animals to inhabit the body of a person. For instance, according to 
several reports, snakes were frequently visible moving under the skin of the conjured, 
sometimes even peering from the victims' mouths. 19 

Other complaints common to people magically afflicted were "locked bowels" (a 
term denoting terminal constipation), "running crazy," and other illnesses causing death 
or permanent disability. While written accounts of locked bowels were uncommon in the 
Victorian world, they are common in later sources. Roland Steiner, a Georgia planter, 
offered a rare nineteenth-century formula for inducing constipation. Speaking from long 
experience with hoodoo and its victims, he stated that some stopped bowels by "getting 
the excrement of the person to be cunjered, boring a hole in a tree, and putting the 
excrement in the hole, and driving a plug in tight." 20 Only by finding, unplugging, and 
then burning the tree could the victim be healed. During his research in the 1930s, Hyatt 
found cases throughout the South. One informant stated that by stopping up a man or 
woman's excrement in a bottle and then throwing it in running water would cause his or 

18 S., in "Letters from Hampton Graduates," Southern Workman 7 (1878): 28. 
19 Bacon, 210; R., L., G., and A., 30. 
20 Steiner, "Observations," 179. 

her mind to drift, followed by constipation, suffering, and ultimately death. Cases of 
insanity rumored to be magically induced were common in nineteenth-century writings. 
Reporting on a time just after the Civil War, a white man told Hyatt that his great-aunt 
had once been driven insane by conjure, brought on by a rival who had supposedly stolen 
some of her hair, bound it with a cord, and buried it under a brick beside the grave of the 
victim's brother. She only discovered the cause of her mental problem by consulting a 
famed Maryland conjurer, "Aunt Zippy" Tull, who successfully cured her by locating the 
charm and instructing her to remove and burn the hair. 21 

Many acts of conjurers simply caused bad luck, discomfort, or other 
inconveniences. For instance, some antebellum hoodooists sold "hush water" that 
African- American men gave to their wives to keep them quietly obedient. In some 
unusual reports, hoodooists could even stop steamboats from reaching their destinations, 
halting their progress or turning them around through magic, when it suited their 
purposes. Such was the case with "Old Jule," an antebellum conjure woman, who had 
supposedly killed so many slaves through supernatural means that her master determined 
to sell her. According to stories, Old Jule could not be so easily disposed of. When night 
fell, she caused the steamboat to run in reverse. The result was that she forced her master 
to keep her, allowing her to continue her depredations. 22 While these accounts and 

21 Hyatt, Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft-Rootwork, 5-6, 2618. See also Wayland 
Hand, "Plugging, Nailing, Wedging, and Kindred Folk Medical Practices," in Folklore & 
Society: Essays in Honor of Benjamin A. Botkin, ed. Bruce Jackson (Hatboro: Folklore 
Associates, 1966), 63-75. 

22 Irene Poole, "Hush Water for Talkative Women," interview by Susie R. O'Brien 
(Uniontown, AL, 10 June 1937), The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, 
George P. Rawick, ed. (Westport: Greenwood Publishing Company, 1972), vol. 6, 320- 
322; "Some Conjure Doctors We Have Heard Of," Southern Workman 26 (1897): 37-38. 

similar tales of the mighty deeds of conjurers were doubtless elaborated with fertile doses 
of imagination, they nevertheless testify to the fear associated with hoodooists' powers. 
To a believer, such fear was wise in light of the illnesses or death that were always 
potential consequences of incurring the wrath of someone with access to such awesome 
ability to harm. 23 

Negative evaluations of hoodooists were the norm in printed sources, virtually all 
of which were composed by scientifically-educated whites and blacks, who did not 
respect and often opposed, conjure. To believers, however, hoodoo also had a positive 
side. Although many blacks distrusted hoodooists for the evil they could perform, they 
also respected them as potential agents for good, providing hope where none existed 
otherwise. For example, while animals in the body and locked bowels were usually a 
result of conjure, magic could also cure such maladies. 24 In fact, only wizardry could cure 
a victim of wicked hoodoo. In a letter to Southern Workman, a witness reported that in 
1873 a conjurer cured a woman he knew of an unusual sickness which involved pains in 
her head and side as well as the sensation that something was rising in her throat. After 
diagnosing her sickness through the use of cards, the conjurer revealed that she had been 
hoodooed through a cup of tea which she drank at a wedding. To heal her, he mixed her 
another tea of various roots and herbs. Five minutes after drinking the tea, a scorpion 

23 A variety of preventatives existed to prevent being conjured. Keeping "frizzly" 
chickens in one's yard, wearing silver dimes around one's ankles, and carrying a bone 
from a black cat were but a few ways to do so. Despite purportedly adverting conjure, 
these practices help illustrate its negative power. Only more magic could thwart the 
power of evil conjure. 

24 When operating as one who removes spells, these sorcerers were often called 
"healers," "conjure doctors," "hoodoo doctors," or similar appellations, referring to their 
benevolent actions. 

issued from the woman's mouth, apparently curing the victim. Often, conjure doctors 
cured illnesses simply by revealing how the affected person had been afflicted. Reporting 
on an event of the late nineteenth century, one of Hyatt's informants told that a young 
woman had been cured of insanity when a hoodoo doctor helped her father locate an evil 
charm that had been buried at the corner of her home. Digging into the soil, her father 
discovered a barrel containing a silhouette of the woman cut from black cloth, pierced 
with pins and needles. Once he had uncovered and removed the source of the madness, 
the woman quickly recovered. 25 

Although scholars quickly dismiss magic as either cause or cure of maladies, 
hoodoo possessed some actual powers to harm. In rare cases, conjurers may have used 
poison. Just as deadly, however, was the mind of the victim. Modern anthropology, 
psychology, and medicine address hoodoo as a question of psychosomatic illness. 
According to Walter B. Cannon's classic article, "Voodoo Death," curses harmed their 
victims in two "movements." The first of these was a process of social isolation, during 
which suffers' friends and family withdrew in fear. At the same time, the afflicted rarely 
sought out communal support. Instead, they usually followed the suggestions of their 
fellows, accepting their fate. In a second movement, the communities typically returned 
to the cursed persons just before they died in order to mourn. The movements heightened 
victims' dread, resulting in extreme psychological stress. Cannon concluded that the 

25 R., L., G., and A., 30; Hyatt, Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft-Rootwork, 332; 
Bacon, 210-211. 

strain harmed the conjured by injecting heightened levels of adrenaline into the blood. 26 
The result was constricted blood vessels. Over a prolonged period, bodily organs would 
suffer from insufficient oxygen because of decreased blood flow. Sufferers frequently 
experienced a lack of appetite as well. Thus, undernourishment and dehydration were 
constant dangers. In other cases, fear could simply exacerbate existing psychological and 
physiological problems, leading to insanity, heart attacks, gastrointestinal problems, and 
other ailments. Once again, conjure worked through faith. 27 

While faith in hoodoo could harm, it could also heal. In the most basic sense, it 
offered hope of recovery, leading the afflicted to rally. Philip Bruce, though no admirer 
of black folk beliefs, professed his astonishment at conjure's power to heal. In his own 
words, the idea that magic can offer a cure "causes a sudden revulsion of joy as soon as it 
is realized, and as the stages of recuperation advance towards a complete recovery, 
confidence takes the place of doubt and anxiety." 28 When the ailment was a 
psychosomatic one, conjure was all the more useful. Modern medicine has provided 
many examples of its efficacy. For instance, in one twentieth-century case, a man who 
had hallucinations that a friend was trying to kill him by conjure was admitted to a 

26 When anthropologists use the term "Voodoo death," it refers to curses in 
general. Therefore, they view African- American conjure as but one manifestation of a 
widespread phenomenon. 

"Walter B. Cannon, "Voodoo Death," American Anthropologist 44 (1942); 
reprinted in Psychosomatic Medicine 19 (1957): 182-190; Harry D. Eastwell, "Voodoo 
Death and the Mechanism for Dispatch of the Dying in East Arnhem, Australia," 
American Anthropologist 84 (1982): 5-18; Douglas Colligan, "Extreme Psychic Trauma 
is the Power Behind Voodoo Death" Science Digest, August 1976, 44-48; Marvin Harris, 
"Death by Voodoo," Psychology Today, August 1984, 16-17. 


Bruce, 118. 

Hartford, Connecticut hospital. After five days of treatment with drugs, he had not 
improved. The doctors reluctantly allowed him to leave the hospital in search of a root 
doctor after extracting a promise that he would return. He soon found a conjure woman, 
who gave him "medicine" to drink, prayed for him, and rubbed more medicine on his 
upper body. She then instructed him to bath his head in the medicine once a day. The 
treatment cost him $150.00. Several days later, the hospital released him, free of 
symptoms. Moreover, despite its magical elements, hoodoo has become a recognized 
medical topic. Health-related journals and books frequently contain material on conjure. 
Even the Textbook of Black-Related Diseases has a chapter on "Voodoo Medicine." 29 

Some conjure doctors admitted the importance of faith to their art. William 
Adams, an ex-slave and conjurer interviewed by the Works Progress Administration 
during the Great Depression, answered an interviewer's question on the virtues of charms 
by stating, "Dat am a question of faith. If deys have de true faith in sich, it wo'ks. 
Udderwise, 'twont." 30 

The medical powers of the hoodoo doctor extended beyond psychology, however. 
Many conjurers, acting as root doctors, offered herbal and other natural remedies to their 
clients. In Hoodoo Medicine: Gullah Herbal Remedies, Faith Mitchell recorded more 

29 Loudell F. Snow, "Sorcerers, Saints, and Charlatans: Black Folk Healers in 
Urban America," Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 2 (1978): 93; Wilbert C. Jordan, 
"Voodoo Medicine," chap, in Textbook of Black-Related Diseases, ed. Richard Allen 
Williams (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1975), 716-738. See also, Daniel E. 
Moerman, "Anthropology of Symbolic Healing," Current Anthropology 20 (1979): 59- 

30 William Adams, interview by Sheldon F. Gauthier (Tarrant County, AL), The 
American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, George P. Rawick, ed. (Westport: 
Greenwood Publishing Company, 1979), supplement 1, vol. 2, 20. 

than fifty traditional remedies from the South Carolina Sea Islands, many of which have 
now been recognized by the scientific community for their medical efficacy. Moreover, 
many of these and similar treatments for illnesses were in use well before the Civil War. 
For instance, Harriet Barrett, a former slave and "doctor or midwife" stated that she used 
a combination of magical and herbal remedies in treating patients. Among them was a 
tea of red oak bark for fevers and a rabbit's foot tied around the neck for chills. Albert J. 
Robinson, a black man born as the Civil War drew to a close, claimed to be a "divine 
healer," who could stop the flow of blood with the touch of his hand and cure the most 
dire diseases through the laying on of hands, water, and prayer. He also admitted using 
secret herbs to treat blood disorders. In antebellum days, when bleeding was an 
acceptable treatment, the herbal remedies of hoodoo, though originating in magical ideas, 
were at least as healthy as whites' medicine. While medicine continued to improve 
throughout the century, root doctors' methods retained their psychological and sometimes 
medical efficacy. 31 

Conjurers did more than simply treat afflictions. They often helped prevent 
recurrences of magical illnesses by identifying those who caused them. In the case of the 
woman who was conjured by having her silhouette pierced with pins and needles, the 

31 Mitchell, 41-100. See also, Todd L. Savitt, Medicine and Slavery: The Diseases 
and Health Care of Blacks in Antebellum Virginia, Blacks in the New World Series, ed. 
August Meier, (Urbana, Chicago, and London: University of Illinois Press, 1978), 149- 
184; Harriet Barrett, interview by B. E. Davis (Palestine County, Texas), The American 
Slave: A Composite Autobiography, George P. Rawick, ed. (Westport: Greenwood 
Publishing Company, 1979), supplement 2, vol. 2, 201; Albert L. Robinson (Conecuh 
County, AL, June 1937), The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, George P. 
Rawick, ed. (Westport: Greenwood Publishing Company, 1977), supplement 1, vol. 1, 
330-331. Please note that much of the medicine practiced by white doctors was likewise 
based on the use of herbs and other naturally-occurring substances. 

hoodoo doctor traced a circle in the dirt around the house where she was staying and 
ordered the woman's father to sprinkle an unidentified white powder around the ring, 
stating that the family would then discover who was responsible for their daughter's 
suffering. Thirty minutes after completing these tasks, the guilty party appeared and tried 
to enter the house, only to be prevented by the circle and powder. More commonly, the 
hoodooists simply gave vague descriptions of the supposed culprits, allowing their clients 
to draw their own conclusions as to the guilty party. 32 

In many cases, conjure doctors went even further, turning spells back upon their 
originators. This practice was so common that A. M. Bacon, author of "Conjuring and 
Conjure-Doctors," reported that such reversals of magic were usually part of conjurers' 
services. Zippy Tull offered her customers a choice on whether or not to reverse 
conjures. Thus, they gave clients revenge along with recovery. 33 

Hoodoo was not simply a system of alternative healthcare, however. It also gave 
blacks hope of improved lives by offering a means of protection from the injustices 
inherent to slavery and then to the racist legal and social system of the late nineteenth- 
century South. Under slavery, charms to prevent whippings and similar mistreatment 
were widespread. In the autobiography, Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry 
Bibb, An American Slave, the author recorded some of his personal experiences with 
conjure. On one occasion, Bibb feared a whipping as a result of fighting, presumably 
with a fellow slave. In order to avoid punishment, he visited a local conjurer, who 

32 Hyatt, Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft-Rootwork, 332; Bacon, 210. For 
European parallels, see Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (New York: 
Charles Scribner's Sons, 1971), 216-222. 

33 Hyatt, Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft-Rootwork, 4-6, 332; Bacon, 210. 

provided him with a powder of alum, salt, and other substances and a bitter root. The 
conjurer then informed Bibb that to escape flogging, he should sprinkle the powder 
around his master. If this failed, he was to chew the root and spit its juice toward his 
owner. In this instance, whether through the workings of magic or otherwise, Bibb 
emerged unscathed. Unfortunately, he became such a fervent believer in hoodoo's power 
that he shortly after "commenced talking saucy" to his master, believing that he was 
untouchable as long as he had the powder and root. The result was a severe thrashing. 
Though this and other unpleasant experiences with conjure convinced him that it was 
useless, he nevertheless admitted that "the great masses of southern slaves" continued to 
believe in its potency. 34 

Frederick Douglass, most famous of slave authors, had his own experience with 
conjure. After suffering repeated abuse from a cruel professional "slave-breaker" named 
Covey, Douglass went to his friend, Sandy Jenkins, for help. Jenkins' solution was to 
present him with a root, which he claimed would prevent Covey or any other white man 
from flogging him. When Covey attempted to do just that, Douglass resisted violently, 
fighting Covey to a draw. Douglass never received another whipping. 35 

When charms to prevent punishment failed or were simply not enough to satisfy 
bondspersons, hoodoo provided other alternatives. The most well known of these were 
powders designed to aid runaways by throwing tracking dogs off their scent. John Barker 
provided one of the more detailed accounts of this form of hoodoo when interviewed by 

34 Henry Bibb, Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American 
Slave, 3 rd ed., with an Introduction by Lucius C. Matlack (New York: Published by 
Author, 1850), 26-27, quoted 26. 


Douglass, 41-42. 

the WPA in 1937. Barker remembered that his grandfather would collect horned toads, 
dry them by the family fire, and grind them into powder. This powder was to be applied 
to the bottoms of shoes in order to throw dogs off the trail of escaped slaves. Barker 
recalled that it invariably worked on normal dogs, though "hell noun's" could overcome 
its influence. 36 If resistance failed, slaves could turn to magic to help them cope. For 
example, the same hush water slave men gave to overly-talkative wives was taken by 
bondspersons of both sexes to help them maintain enough patience and calm to stand up 
under the rigors of life as a chattel. 37 

After the Civil War, spells to better life as slaves were no longer useful. 
Nevertheless, hoodoo held on to its role as a protection from injustice. Often, this 
inequity appeared in the southern legal system, which was notoriously discriminatory 
toward blacks. As they had in the past, conjurers claimed to be able to thwart the law. 38 
Some root workers reputedly prevented their clients from going to prison by breaking up 
trials with thunder and lightening. A more common means of affecting cases was by 
"fixing" the courtroom. One of the more colorful figures to work on court cases was 

36 Barker failed to describe these apparently supernatural beasts. 

37 John Barker, interview by Florence Angermiller (Kinney County, TX, 12 
September 1937), The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, George P. Rawick, 
ed. (Westport: Greenwood Publishing Company, 1979), supplement 2, vol. 2, 166; Poole, 
Rawick, ed., vol. 6, 320-322. 

38 Like a lawyer, a hoodoo doctor's efforts did not depend upon the guilt or 
innocence of the accused. His or her spells were reputably able to free guilty and 
innocent alike. 

Stephaney Robinson, known as Dr. Buzzard. 39 According to legend, Robinson could 
dissolve trials by sending groups of magical buzzards to the courthouse. Whether used by 
bondspersons to subvert slavery or freed blacks to fight racial inequality, conjure 
functioned as a means by which African- Americans survived hardships and held on to the 
hope that they could better their condition. 40 

Finally, hoodoo could ostensibly achieve a variety of personal aims. Some 
claimed to be able to locate treasure through the use of divining rods. All conjurers could 
provide charms with a variety of uses. They might perform such simple acts as bringing 
luck. Some of the most popular of these charms were rabbits' feet. Though these were 
lucky with or without the aid of a conjurer, a skilled practitioner greatly increased their 
efficacy. In some areas, African- Americans believed that the tip of a black cat's tail was 
even more powerful. Many lucky charms fulfilled specific functions. The most popular 
of these promised success in gambling or financial matters. In addition to changing 
fortune, hoodoo doctors could also predict it. William Wells Brown reported that while a 
slave, he once visited a fortune-teller who saw his future by gazing into a water-filled 
gourd, revealing that he would one day be a free man. Moreover, Brown stated that such 
experiences were far from unusual, since almost "every large plantation, with any 

39 Robinson was not the original Dr. Buzzard, who died in the late nineteenth 
century. Robinson, a black man, lived well into the twentieth century, though he 
apparently began his practice in the nineteenth century. Legend says that he learned his 
powers from an African father or grandfather. See Pinckney, 101-120. 

40 Hyatt, Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft-Rootwork, 1423-1449, 3633-3634; 
Pinckney, 101-120. For a historian who recognized the power of conjure in black lives, 
see Robin D. G. Kelley, '"We Are Not What We Seem': Rethinking Black Working- 
Class Opposition in the Jim Crow South," The Journal of American History 80 (1993): 

considerable number of negroes, had at least one, who laid claim to be a fortune-teller." 41 
One of the conjurers' most desired services was the production of love charms. For 
instance, reporting on a time about five years after the Civil War, Henry F. Pyles, a 
freedman, stated he had bought a charm composed of a combination of pepper, wool, 
"Pammy Christy beans," and rusty iron in a bag tied with horsehair and wet with whisky. 
This bizarre concoction was designed to win the love of a woman with whom Pyles had 
become infatuated. Providing luck, messages about the future, and love were but a few of 
the conjurers' services. Any personal hope or problem was a possible job for a hoodoo 
doctor. 42 

So how did the supernatural aptitude of the hoodooist translate into temporal 
power? On a basic level, fear of conjure had a profound effect on individual blacks. For 
instance, the suggestion that a person was the victim of hoodoo was enough to create 
panic for many blacks. If contemporary observers are to be believed, such fear could 
cause physical decline and death. Likewise, belief in the positive effects of conjure 
could lead to equally extraordinary events. As Philip Bruce maintained, root workers' 
magic could restore the health of the ill. More spectacularly, however, were those cases 
when conjurers inspired individual antebellum blacks to resist the will of their masters. 
Hoodoo motivated both Frederick Douglass and Henry Bibb to oppose whites' control 


Brown, My Southern Home, 70. 

42 Puckett, Folk Beliefs, 207; Sara M. Handy, "Negro Superstitions," 737-738; 
William Wells Brown, Narrative of the Life of William Wells Brown, An American Slave 
(London: Charles Gilpin, 1850), 91-92; Brown, My Southern Home, 68-82; Henry F. 
Pyles, interview by Robert Vinson Lackey (Tulsa, OK, spring 1937), The WPA Oklahoma 
Slave Narratives, T. Lindsay Baker and Julie P. Baker, eds. (Norman and London: 
University of Oklahoma Press, 1996), 328-329; Hyatt, Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft- 
Rootwork, 667; Puckett, Folk Beliefs, 282-287. 

over their lives. Moreover, Douglass' experience helped him to become the influential 
black abolitionist. His battle with Covey, which marked the end of his whippings, was a 
direct result of his confidence in a magic root. As he later wrote, "It rekindled the few 
expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. It 
recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be 
free." 43 Likewise, William Wells Brown's visit to the fortune-teller notably influenced 
his course in life. For some time before his visit with Uncle Frank, Brown had been 
planning to escape slavery. As the time to carry out his plans approached, he went to the 
fortune-teller to find out if he would succeed. Uncle Frank's assurance gave him the 
courage to go ahead with his plan. Within a matter of months, Brown had escaped, going 
on to become a medical doctor and noted author. Simple faith in the power of conjure 
ensured that hoodoo doctors had the psychological power to bring illness or health, love 
or rejection, and freedom or slavery to nineteenth-century blacks. 44 

For successful conjurers, economic prosperity inevitably followed such influence. 
Even under slavery, hoodoo doctors usually demanded payment for their work. Uncle 
Frank, for example, charged twenty-five cents per visit. Such an amount might seem 
small, but in a time when the vast majority of blacks were bondservants, it was a 
handsome sum. Following emancipation, the price of hoodoo skyrocketed. Writing in 
the 1880s, Eugene V. Smalley, recorded that one conjurer undertook to rid a Louisiana 
plantation of an unpopular overseer for $2.50. The magician had originally asked for 

43 Douglass, 43. 

"Bruce, 1 1 1-125; Douglass, 41-47; Bibb, 25-32; Brown, Narrative, 90-92; 
Brown, My Southern Home. 


$30.00, but he was willing to negotiate. Other conjurers refused to budge on high-priced 
spells. For instance, two letters to the editor of Southern Workman in 1878 recorded 
prices of $25.00 for individual spells, one intended to cure lizards in the body and the 
other to win the love of a woman. New Orleans hoodooist, "Jean Bayou," also known as 
"Dr. John" and "John Montanet," sometimes charged $50.00 for mixtures of water and 
commonly-available herbs. These high prices made successful hoodoo doctors wealthy. 
In contrast, following the Civil War, the average southern black lived as a tenant farmer, 
the harshest form of which was sharecropping. Sharecroppers, like slaves, made no 
money directly. Their only cash income came through the sale of their share of the crops 
they produced on the property of their landlords. Many black tenant farmers made less 
than $100 annually. A conjurer, however, could gain several months' worth of wages in a 
single day. For instance, at the time of Jean Bayou's death, he was supposedly worth 
around $50,000.00. Even if a tenant farmer were able to save all of his or her hard-earned 
income, it would take five hundred years to raise such wealth. 45 

In some cases, hoodooists could move into realms of political leadership. Such 
was the case with the hoodoo doctor encountered by Samuel Taylor. 46 He was far from 
unique, though. Even before the abolition of slavery, some conjurers rose to positions of 
community leadership. The most famous of these was Gullah Jack, Denmark Vesey's 

45 Brown, Narrative, 91; Eugene V. Smalley, "Sugar-Making in Louisiana," The 
Century 35 (1887): 1 12; R., L., G., and A, 30; W. and C, 38; Roller, David C. and Robert 
W. Twyman, eds., The Encyclopedia of Southern History (Baton Rouge and London: 
Louisiana State University Press, 1979), s.v. "Tenant Farming," by James S. Fisher; 
Hearn, "The Last of the Voudoos," 726-727. 

46 Unfortunately for historians, Taylor did not mention whether the hoodooist held 
an elected office or an informal position of political leadership, analogous to that of a 
party boss. 

second-in-command in an 1822 conspiracy to overthrow slavery. Hoodooists likewise 
fomented rebellion in smaller revolts in North Carolina, Mississippi, and Louisiana. 
Even Nat Turner's famed rebellion of 1831 was girded with elements of magic. Though 
Turner believed he had received a divine mandate from the Christian Holy Spirit to 
overthrow slavery and kill all whites, his followers could not help but understand his 
supposedly prophetic visions of black triumph over whites in light of their deep-seated 
understanding of magic. Even to whites, Turner felt it necessary to state that he had not 
used conjure to build his following. 47 

The most unusual case of the power within the grasp of hoodoo practitioners, 
however, was the experience of Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. 
During her life, stretching from the 1790s or early 1800s to 1881, members of both races 
throughout Louisiana recognized her as a Voodoo priestess and powerful conjure woman. 
Her birth as a free woman of mixed race did little to hint at the influence she would later 
wield. Neither did her early employment as a hairdresser. Nevertheless, by the mid- 
nineteenth century, she was famed as a purveyor of magical charms and presiding over 
New Orleans' most important Voodoo ritual, an annual dance on the shores of Lake 
Pontchartrain. According to legend, she could raise storms at will and kept a pet snake 
which she treated like a baby. Darker stories claimed she spoke with the devil and 
sacrificed human victims. Following her death on June 15, 1881, the city's newspapers 
carried obituaries lauding her for her beauty, wisdom, charity, skill at healing, and 

47 Taylor, 77-80; William C. Suttles, Jr., "African Religious Survivals as Factors in 
American Slave Revolts," Journal of Negro History 56 (1971): 97-104; Nat Turner, The 
Confessions of Nat Turner, the Leader of the Late Insurrections in Southampton, Va., in 
Slave Narratives, ed. William L. Andrews and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Library of America 
Series, no.l 14 (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 2000), 251. 

ministry to condemned prisoners. One such obituary described her as "a most wonderful 
woman. Doing good for the sake of doing good alone, she obtained no reward, oft times 
meeting with prejudice and loathing, she was nevertheless contented and did not flag in 
her work." 48 Considering the rumors that circulated around her, it is not surprising that 
one irate reader angrily responded with a letter to the editor surmising that the authors of 
Laveau's obituaries were doubtless the victims of a practical joker, who had fooled them 
into believing that Marie Laveau was a saint. Whatever contemporaries' opinions were, 
virtually everyone in New Orleans had one. Rare indeed was it for the death of a free 
black female to receive such attention. Moreover, Laveau's deeds did not end with her 
death. Most authors agree that her daughter, and perhaps granddaughter, took over her 
conjuring practice, and most of those who knew these later Marie Laveaus believed that 
they knew the original. Meanwhile, the grave of the first Marie Laveau became an object 
of pilgrimage for black and white believers, who made offerings to her spirit in return for 
favors. Some modern New Orleans Voodoo practitioners consider her a goddess, calling 
on her for healing, legal problems, protection, and matters of sex and love. For a member 
of a profoundly oppressed race during a time when slavery and lynchings were 
commonplace, Laveau rose from being a hairdresser to a goddess, who continues to help 
those who believe in Voodoo and the magic associated with it. Without doubt, she was 
one of the most well-known black women of the nineteenth century. 49 

48 "Death of Marie Laveau," The Daily Picayune, 17 May 1881, 8. 

49 Long, Spiritual Merchants, 45-52; Tallant, Voodoo in New Orleans, 51-151; 
Lyle Saxon, Fabulous New Orleans (New York and London: Century Company, 1928), 
237-246; Charles M. Gandolfo, Marie Laveau of New Orleans, the Great Voodoo Queen 
(New Orleans: New Orleans Historical Voodoo Museum, 1992), 16.; Charles M. 
Gandolfo, Voodoo Ve-Ve's & Talismans and How to Use Them (New Orleans: New 

The influence of nineteenth-century hoodoo was so great that many African- 
American folk heroes were themselves conjurers. "Railroad Bill," a legendary outlaw, 
famed for evading capture by white sheriffs for years, supposedly did so by changing 
himself into animals in order to hide his identity. While Railroad Bill was an outsider, a 
killer, most folkloric conjurers were not so alien from the average black American. 
Stories of the slave, "Old John," sometimes depict him as practicing conjure. For 
instance, Richard M. Dorson's American Negro Folktales includes a story of John's 
transformation contest with his master. Having gone through a period where his master 
whipped him frequently, John visited the local "mojo-man," obtaining a charm that 
enabled him to change shape. Unfortunately for John, he refused to pay top dollar, 
getting inferior magic. His attempt to avoid a beating failed. Without doubt, the most 
famous folkloric conjurer was Rabbit, who frequently appears as a practitioner of magic. 
In Gullah Folktales from the Georgia Coast, Charles Colcock Jones, Jr. told the story of 
how "Buh Rabbit" underwent a period of testing at the instruction of a conjurer who 
promised to teach him hoodoo. According to Missouri blacks, Rabbit learned conjure 
well. In addition to the usual overcoming of stronger animals through trickery, Rabbit 
also battled with rival hoodoo workers, most notably Woodpecker, another popular 
character in the folklore of nineteenth-century Missouri blacks. At one point, 
Woodpecker stole Rabbit's powerful conjure bag, which contained a silver "luck ball," 
but when he tried to take it away, it spoke to him, frightening him into returning it to its 
proper place. Conjure, already a powerful reality in African- American life, grew in 

Orleans Historical Voodoo Museum), 16. See also Hurston, "Hoodoo in America," 328- 

influence as men swapped stories of their favorite outlaws and mothers told their children 
animal stories. 50 

As was the case with Samuel Taylor's hoodoo doctor, wealth and power followed 
skilled practitioners of hoodoo. Even their names, such as "Uncle" Frank and "Aunt 
Zippy" Tull, testify to the respect they received in black society. Doubtless, their deeds 
often had a negative effect on their clients, encouraging them to oppose masters without 
hope of success, to expect love from one who was uninterested, or to eschew medical 
treatment in favor of magic. Even if one assumes that their reputed powers were wholly 
spurious, however, their reputed supernatural aptitude had powerful benefits for those 
who believed. They gave nineteenth-century blacks hope in lives over which they often 
had little control. Slavery and Jim Crow took away African- Americans' economic, 
political, and often physical freedom. Hoodoo offered a means of asserting power over 
oneself and others, for good or evil. It is not surprising that conjurers rose to such 
prominence in their communities. 51 

50 Carmer, 122-125; Richard M. Dorson, ed., American Negro Folklore 
(Greenwich: Fawcett publications, Inc., 1967), 141-142; Jones, 111-113; Mary Owen, 
Voodoo Tales, 102-119. 

51 According to Hyatt, Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft-Rootwork, 923, "Zippy" 
means "lively" and "smart." 




Hoodooists' temporal power rested upon the faith of the masses, who viewed 
conjure with mixed feelings of respect, fear, and hope. From the standpoint of the 
conjurers themselves, however, success rested upon a potent blend of manipulation of the 
supernatural world and effective marketing. Notable regional distinctions defined 
conjurers' practice based on the area in which he or she lived. Still, surprising 
similarities continued to appear in conjure throughout the South. This mix of difference 
and similarity which went to shape the success of conjurers was most evident in four 
aspects of hoodooists' practice: the supernatural foundations of hoodoo, acquiring the 
ability to conjure, the theory and production of spells and charms, and the marketing of 

Before examining conjurers and their trade, an understanding of its regional 
distinctions is useful. Modern American conjure is a mixture of magical beliefs 
originating in two zones of European settlement, which remained quite distinct during the 
seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. The first to be settled was the Atlantic 
coast, encompassing Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. 
These colonies received shipments of slaves beginning in 1619. The trade accelerated in 
the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The element which set this area apart from 
the rest of the South was the strong English influence which shaped it from the early 


seventeenth century onward. Within this region, the Sea Islands of South Carolina and 
Georgia proved the most important. High black-to-white ratios and relative isolation 
from the rest of the South set these locations apart. From their initial settlements along 
the Atlantic Coast, Anglo-American settlers moved west to occupy the lands of the 
central South and Trans-Mississippi, as far as Texas. In contrast, the second included 
French and Spanish settlements, chiefly on the Gulf of Mexico and the lower Mississippi 
River. The Spanish first arrived in 1565, founding St. Augustine, Florida. Shortly after, 
small numbers of Spanish settlers moved into what is now Texas. The French did not 
reach the American South in significant numbers until the early eighteenth century. Their 
largest settlement was New Orleans. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth 
centuries the Latin cultural area grew far more slowly than the English domain. The chief 
area of expansion was the Mississippi River. Along its banks, French settlers gradually 
advanced. In other regions, Latin influence declined as the Protestant English moved 
westward. Louisiana, which fell under American control in 1803, retained much of its 
Latin culture because of its large French population. South Florida, which had a very 
small colonial population, likewise escaped rapid assimilation to the American culture, 
primarily because few American settlers wanted to move into an area with such a climate 
and terrain. 

The most obvious distinction between the zones was the difference in terms used 
by those who practiced conjure. In New Orleans, where French influence dominated, 
whites knew African-American magic as "Voodoo." Blacks called it "hoodoo." 1 

'The term "hoodoo" spread throughout the South by the late nineteenth or early 
twentieth century. For this reason, it is employed throughout this work as a synonym for 
conjure, though it clearly originated in Louisiana. Some later authors draw a sharp 

Practitioners were typically known as "wangateurs" or "wangateuses," for men and 
women, respectively. "Gris-gris" denoted charms and spells. "Tobies" and "wangas" 
were more specific words for good and evil charms, respectively. In Missouri, "noodoo," 
a variant of "Voodoo," was the favored term for the practice of African- American magic. 
In southern Florida, an area long ruled by Spain, conjure was known as "Nanigo," and 
practitioners were termed "brujas." Along the English-settled Atlantic seaboard, black 
sorcerers called themselves "conjurers," "root workers," or "double-heads." The 
performance of their art was known by such words as "conjure," "rooting," "tricking," 
"fixing," and "goophering." In some cases, terms were localized. For instance, Maryland 
blacks knew conjurers as "high" men or women. Likewise, "root workers" was a 
designation particularly popular along the Georgia and South Carolina coasts, as was 
"goopher" a term almost unknown outside of the English cultural area. In Mississippi, 
African- Americans used "mojo" when referring to benevolent magic. Virginian blacks 
sometimes called conjuring "Gombre-work." 2 

distinction between the religion of Voodoo and magic of hoodoo. Today, this distinction 
does exist, but during the nineteenth century and earlier, neither African- Americans nor 
whites attempted to separate them. For an example of this error, see Shannon R. 
Turlington, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Voodoo (Indianapolis: Alpha, 2002), 283. 

2 Pitkin, 167; Laura L. Porteous, "The Gri-gri Case," Louisiana Historical 
Quarterly 17 (1934): 48-63; Puckett, Folk Beliefs, 19; Mary Owen, "Among the 
Voodoos," 241; Marie Cappick, The Key West Story, 1818-1950, serialized in The Coral 
Tribune, Serialized in The Coral Tribune, 2, 9, 16, 23 May, 7; 6 June 1958, 7; A. L. 
Lopez, Florida Writers Project, "Nanigo Dance: Superstitions and Customs of Cuban 
Negroes in Tampa," P. K. Yonge Library of Florida History, University of Florida, 
Gainesville; Felix Cannella, Florida Writers Project, "Nafiigo," 26 May 1936, P. K. 
Yonge Library of Florida History, University of Florida, Gainesville; Pinckney, 1-18; 
Hyatt, Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft-Rootwork, 11,17, 275, 278, 280-281, 284, 308, 

A more important regional difference was the persistence of pre-Christian 
religious beliefs in the Latin cultural zone, which played an important part in African- 
American conjure. 3 This role is best seen in Voodoo, practiced in the former French 
territory of Louisiana, with its center in New Orleans. "Voodoo," though often used as a 
synonym for "hoodoo"or "conjure," was more than simply magic. Drawing heavily from 
Haitian Vodou, it retained a pantheon of gods, who were honored by the worship of their 
devotees. The most visible rituals of the religion were dances, the chief one of which 
took place along the shores of Lake Pontchartrain each St. John's Eve (June 23), in honor 
of Voodoo gods, including St. John, who was a powerful spirit in the religion. During the 
ceremony, a Voodoo queen, the most famous of which was Marie Laveau, presided. In 
the early nineteenth century, kings also played major roles in the rituals, but by the second 
half of the century, they appear to have declined in importance or disappeared altogether. 4 

Unfortunately for our knowledge of Louisiana Voodoo, most writers on the 
subject rewrote a sensationalized description of Haitian Vodou given by Louis-Elise 
Moreau de Saint-Mery, a historian of colonial Haiti. 5 According to these accounts, the 
dances usually featured women and men dressed in an assembly of red handkerchiefs, 
with those presiding girded with a blue cord. Women also wore head cloths, called 

3 For purposes of analysis, "religion" refers to an aspect of spirituality which 
includes worship of divine beings. Thus, religion is god focused. In contrast, "magic," 
"conjure," and related terms are human focused, designating those elements of spirituality 
aimed at changing human circumstances by influencing divine or supernatural forces. 

"Long, Spiritual Merchants, 40-51; Tallant, Voodoo in New Orleans, 3-51. 

'See Louis-Elise Moreau de Saint-Mery, Description topographique, physique, 
civile, politique et historique de la partie francaise de I 'Ue de Saint-Domingue, 2 vols. 
(Philadelphia, 1797). 

"tignons," which they tied in seven knots sticking out above their heads. During the 
ceremonies, participants worshiped Voodoo Magnian or the Grand Zombie, the chief 
Voodoo god, in the form of a snake, held aloft and consulted by the queens. Various 
lesser gods would possess the queens. While in a trance, they issued instructions from 
the gods who controlled them. Following these pronouncements, individual worshipers 
would pray to the gods, petitioning them for help or guidance. Animal sacrifices, which 
pleased the Voodoo deities, were a necessary part of the ceremony. According to some 
writers, the dances frequently evolved into sexual orgies. 6 Though such descriptions are 
questionable when applied to Louisiana Voodoo, they do contain elements of truth. For 
instance, one eyewitness of an early nineteenth-century St. John's Eve ceremony, whose 
account was preserved in J. W. Buel's late nineteenth-century Sunlight and Shadow of 
America 's Great Cities, confirmed the presence of a female queen or high priestess, a 
prominent male who assisted the queen, nude dancing, the use of a snake in the worship 
of Voodoo Magnian, and apparent spirit possession in the form of dances designed to 
resemble the writhing of snakes. In addition, before the dance began, the participants 
shared in a grand feast. Voodoo ceremonies included more than just the St. John's Eve 
dance, however. Buel, for instance, reported that July 19 was the beginning of a major 
four-day festival for believers. Other large dances took place at midnight in Congo 
Square, inside New Orleans. 7 

6 Later scholars have questioned the sexual focus of the St. John's Eve dances. 

7 Long, Spiritual Merchants, 40-51; Cable, "Creole Slave Songs," 815-821; James 
William Buel, Sunlight and Shadow of America 's Great Cities (Philadelphia: West 
Philadelphia Publishing Company, 1889), 516-542; Tallant, Voodoo in New Orleans, 3- 
51. See also Blake Touchstone, "Voodoo in New Orleans," Louisiana History 13 (1972): 
371-386, who argued that the dances had become a form of pseudo- Voodoo aimed at 


Smaller ceremonies designed to honor the deities were also common in Voodoo. 

Charles D. Warner witnessed one of these. One Voodooist held weekly gatherings on 

Wednesday at noon, Warner observed. At the assembly he attended, a mixed group of 

whites and blacks, with women predominating, sat in a circle around an altar. A statue of 

the Virgin Mary with candles placed around it rested upon the altar. In front of it were 

dishes of fruit, candy, and other offerings brought by the participants. To open the 

ceremony, the presiding male Voodooist rapped on the floor three times. After doing so, 

the group began to chant: 

Danse Calinda, boudoum, boudoum! 
Danse Calinda, boudoum, boudoum! 8 

Chants of various sorts continued throughout most of the ritual. While engaged in 

singing, the leader of the assembly poured libations of brandy on the floor, then filled a 

bowl with the alcoholic beverage, which he thereupon set alight. Afterwards, he dipped 

the offerings from the altar in the flaming liquid. With his hands aflame, he tossed them 

into the circle of observers, who were pleased if they were able to catch some. Next, the 

leader brought up individual participants and covered their heads and faces with the 

burning liquid. All told, the ceremony lasted for about an hour and a half. 9 

Voodoo-like religions survived in other places, as well, the most important of 

these being part of northern Missouri along the Mississippi River. Among the religious 

making money of whites by the late 1800s. If Touchstone is correct, this development 
was the first example of tourist Voodoo. 

8 Charles Dudley Warner, Studies in the South and West, with Comments on 
Canada (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1889), 69. 

9 Warner, 64-74. 

rituals that survived were dances in honor of Grandfather Rattlesnake, doubtless linked to 
the Voodoo Magnian of New Orleans Voodoo. Mary Owen, who studied Voodoo in 
North Missouri during the late 1800s, described this dance as being done in the nude and 
incorporating fasting beforehand, chanting, animal sacrifice, and communal feasting. 
Owen likewise recorded fire and moon dances. They performed the latter in a circle, 
revolving, at greater or lesser speeds, throughout the ritual. Unlike in New Orleans, self- 
styled "kings" presided over these dances. 10 

While Louisiana and nearby areas have long been recognized as the seat of 
Voodoo, pre-Christian beliefs survived in other places as well. A heavily religious link to 
conjure survived in Florida, where the syncretic religion known as Nafiigo was practiced. 
Nanigo evolved primarily from Santeria, a Cuban folk religion." Florida, only ninety 
miles from the island, received Cuban immigrants throughout its history. They arrived in 
particularly large numbers during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The 
new arrivals blended their religious rituals with those of blacks already in the area and 
others who arrived from other parts of the Caribbean or United States, including the 
Bahamas and Haiti. The result was a Voodoo-like faith. As in the Voodoo of the French- 
settled areas, Nanigo had its own pantheon of gods. We know even less of them, 

10 Mary Owen, "Among the Voodoos," 236-241. 

"In Cuba, "nanigo," was a term for a Santerian secret society. In the popular 
mind, and sometimes in reality, these societies were deeply involved in the Cuban 
underworld, making them widely feared as a criminal force. In Palmetto Country, 
Stetson Kennedy defined Nanigo as only the most elite cult of the broader "brujeria" 
faith. Kennedy's formulation more closely replicated the Cuban relationship of nanigo to 
Santeria. Nevertheless, I have followed the practice of most early twentieth-century 
authors (including Kennedy in another work) by using "Nanigo" to represent the entire 
faith. See Kennedy, Palmetto Country, 175-179, and Joseph M. Murphy, Santeria: 
African Spirits in America, with new Preface (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), 32-34. 

however, than we do of those worshiped in New Orleans or along the banks of the 
Mississippi River. Most of the sources addressing the religion come from the early 
twentieth century, though they can be applied to earlier times. According to a report from 
the 1930s, African- Americans in West Tampa performed ceremonies with drums. A 
"devil," armed with a knife and carrying a chicken, would then appear and dance before 
the participants. As with most accounts of New Orleans Voodoo, this description of 
Nanigo was almost certainly sensationalized and misinterpreted by an unfamiliar 
investigator. Rather than a devil, the dancer more likely represented Shango, an 
aggressive deity, popular in Santeria and other Caribbean religions. During the same 
period, Felix Cannella collected a more credible account of Nanigo in Tampa while 
working for the Florida Writers Project. According to Cannella, a usual Nanigo rite 
began with chanting with participants seated in a circle surrounding a priestess known as 
a "mama-loi." Those present then sacrificed a goat, into which a human spirit had been 
magically transferred, followed by a feast on its raw flesh. During the rituals, the cry of 
"Zombie" was frequent. Next, a priest, known as a "papa-loi," would dance with two 
chickens, which he would then sacrifice, sprinkling their blood on the participants. Other 
investigators of Tampa's Nanigo documented the existence of several non-Christian gods, 
such as Yemaya, a spirit of the air, and Elegba, an evil god. Marie Cappick, writing in 
1958, stated that what she variously called "Voodoo," "Nanigro," or "Obeah" 12 survived 
in the Florida Keys until the early 1930s. Among their activities were midnight 
processions. Participants carried torches and wore burlap bags and animal masks. Other 
practices of Key West's African-Americans strongly resembled those of New Orleans 

12 Obeah is a Bahamian syncretic religion, similar to Vodou and Santeria. 

Voodoo. According to Cappick, the "Voodooists" had a place of worship near South 
Beach, called the Congo hall, where they gathered each St. John's Day. A queen presided 
over these and lesser ceremonies. Julia, who came to Key West from Africa by way of 
the Bahamas, was the best known of these queens. In a St. John's Day ceremony 
witnessed by the author, elements typical of Louisiana Voodoo appeared, including 
dancing, drumming, and animal sacrifice. In this case, a goat was the unfortunate victim. 
Participants drank its blood. Without doubt, these descriptions of Nanigo were 
embellished for the benefit of white readers, but they attest to the existence of a non- 
Christian faith among black Floridians. 13 

Unlike the Latin-settled regions, the Anglo zone had comparatively few pre- 
Christian beliefs which supported conjure. Of course, scattered elements of the old 
religions persisted. For example, until the early twentieth century, African- Americans 
along the Georgia coast prayed to rivers when undergoing baptism, asking the waters to 
wash away their sins. Although some elements of pre-Christian belief persisted, 
conjurers did not typically serve as religious leaders. Preachers who doubled as root 
doctors were, however, far from unknown. In fact, some Atlantic coast blacks believed 
that conjure was inimical to Christianity and attributed the root workers' power to evil 
forces, including the devil. Such was the case with former slave Ank Bishop of 

13 Lopez, Florida Writers Project, 2-3; Canella, Florida Writers Project, 1-3; 
Cappick, 9 May 1958, 7; 16 May 1958, 7; Ralph Steele Boggs, "Spanish Folklore from 
Tampa Florida," Southern Folklore Quarterly 1 (1937): 1-12; Stetson Kennedy, "Nanigo 
in Florida," Southern Folklore Quarterly 4 (1940): 153-156; O. H. Hauptmann, "Spanish 
Folklore from Tampa Florida: (No. VII) Witchcraft," Southern Folklore Quarterly 3 
(1939): 197-200. 

Livingston, Alabama. He announced, "But I'm a believer, and this here voodoo and 
hoodoo and spirits ain't nothing but a lot of folks outen Christ." 14 

What was different about the Anglo-influenced zones which made them less 
hospitable to African deities? Ultimately, a combination of black- to- white ratios, 
importation of slaves from the Caribbean, and European religious differences provided 
the answer. The territory around New Orleans and the South Carolina and Georgia Sea 
Islands, both of which were major centers for hoodoo, had high black-to-white population 
ratios during antebellum times. This fact doubtless contributed to the persistence of 
magic in both Latin and Anglo zones. In addition, the concentration of African- 
Americans made the continued celebration of large-scale religious rituals more viable. 
Black-to- white ratios alone, however, cannot explain the religious differences between 
the Latin and Anglo cultural areas. For instance, the Sea Islands, where blacks often 
outnumbered whites several times over, had a much higher percentage of blacks than did 
New Orleans, South Florida, or Missouri, all of which showed greater pre-Christian 
survivals during the nineteenth century. 15 

14 Georgia Writers' Project, Savannah Unit, Drums and Shadows, 113, 125, 131; 
Joyner, 144-1 50; B. A. Botkin, ed., Lay My Burden Down: A Folk History of Slavery 
(Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 1945), 39. 

15 Louisiana, for instance, had an almost equal number of blacks than whites in the 
decades preceding the Civil War. Whites outnumbered blacks by about 7,000 in 1 860, 
though in preceding decades, the slight imbalance had leaned in favor of African- 
Americans. Florida, in contrast, was sparsely populated, with the over 77,000 white 
Floridians outnumbering African- Americans by around 15,000. In Missouri, the 
imbalance was much greater, with whites outnumbering blacks by about 5 to 1 in 1 820, 
increasing to almost 9 to 1 in 1860. For more details, see Roller and Twyman, s.v. 
"South Carolina," by George C. Rogers, Jr., "Louisiana," by Allen J. Begnand, "Florida," 
by Herbert J. Doherty, Jr., and "Missouri," by M. James Kedro and Lyle W. Dorsett. 

In addition to high black-to-white ratios, both the Latin area and English South 
Carolina had imported many of their slaves from the Caribbean islands. African- 
European syncretic religions had developed there owing to an even more pronounced race 
imbalance and frequent negative population growth rates. Planters required continued 
importation of native Africans to support the profitable sugar trade on which the islands' 
economies relied. In the case of New Orleans, an influx of several thousand Haitian 
slaves between 1806 and 1810, following a successful slave-led revolution in the French 
colony, certainly spurred the growth of Voodoo in the area. Moreover, the Haitians' 
arrival in New Orleans took place at a time when 75 percent of American slaves were 
born in the United States. An even more pronounced case prevailed in Florida. There, 
black Cubans began arriving in large numbers during the late nineteenth century to escape 
revolutions, persecution, and economic hardship. The Anglo coast had received no such 
sudden wave of immigrants. Nevertheless, ratios and late Caribbean immigration cannot 
explain the vitality of pre-Christian religion in the Latin zone. Even in New Orleans, 
Voodoo had been strong long before the large-scale arrival of Haitian refugees. In the 
twenty years preceding 1800, Louisiana's European governors banned the importation of 
slaves from Martinique and Haiti, then known as Santo Domingo, for the express purpose 
of preventing the growth of Voodoo, already perceived as a social problem. 16 

16 Sylvia R. Frey and Betty Wood, Come Shouting to Zion: African-American 
Protestantism in the American South and British Caribbean to 1830 (Chapel Hill and 
London: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 63-148; Herbert Asbury, The French 
Quarter: An Informal History of the New Orleans Underworld (New York: Alfred A. 
Knopf, Inc., 1936), 254-283; Hurston, "Hoodoo in America," 317-319; Pitkin, 194-196; 
Cable, The Grandissimes, 182, 184; Alfred Metraux, Voodoo in Haiti, trans, by Hugo 
Charteris and with and Introduction by Sidney W. Mintz (New York: Schocken Books, 
1972), 323-358; Michael A. Gomez, Exchanging Our Country Marks: The 
Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South (Chapel Hill 

A final factor in preserving the religious element of conjure was the Latin area's 
Catholicism, which allowed blacks to continue to worship their ancestral gods under the 
guise of saints, a common practice in Haiti, Cuba, and the other Caribbean islands from 
which the slaves hailed. The reason for this was whites' antipathy to Voodoo and related 
religions, which they feared as witchcraft and a potential source of revolution. The 
practice of identifying gods with saints grew stronger once the blacks arrived in America, 
where they made up a smaller percentage of the total population, allowing whites to keep 
a much closer watch over them. For example, Papa Lebat, one of the chief Voodoo 
deities, was identical to the Catholic St. Peter. Likewise, St. Michael, the archangel, was 
the same as Voodoo Magnian, also known as Blanc Dani or Danny, known for his 
serpentine form and his power over storms. Over time, the rationale for the practice of 
hiding gods under the names of saints disappeared, and for all intents and purposes, the 
gods and saints became the same. Adherents considered themselves Catholics, while 
continuing to serve the old gods. Unlike Latin Catholicism, English Protestantism had no 
saints, making it more difficult for blacks to preserve their old pantheon under new 
names. 17 

The greatest regional distinctions in conjure appeared in the spiritual foundations 
from which practitioners derived their power. In the Latin cultural area, these took the 
form of deities. Voodoo's pantheon of gods did not simply receive the worship of their 
devotees. Instead, they actively aided conjurers in their spells. Helen Pitkin's An Angel 

and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 23; Boggs, 1-4. See also 
Porteous, 48-63. 

17 Frey and Wood, 63-148; Gomez, 23. 

by Brevet described two New Orleans hoodoo rituals which incorporated petitions to and 
possession by a variety of gods, including Blanc Dani, Liba, and Vert Agoussou. George 
Washington Cable recorded similar spells in The Grandissimes. Hoodoo doctors chose 
which gods or goddesses to address based on their particular qualities. For instance, 
according to Cable, in matters of the heart, conjurers' told their clients to call upon 
Monsieur Agoussou, god of love, and Assonquer, the deity of good luck, to ensure that 
the object of their affections would reciprocate. In order to persuade gods to accept tasks, 
supplicants were to make offerings and otherwise seek to please them. Those who sought 
the aid of Agoussou wore red, which was thought to be the favorite color of the deity. In 
matters of money, supplicants could positively influence Assonquer by offerings of pound 
cake, cordial, and sugar cane syrup. In order to know whether Assonquer had accepted 
the offerings, clients burned green candles set in tumblers filled with syrup. If the flame 
burned brightly, the god had accepted. If not, his help was doubtful. Areas outside New 
Orleans likewise called on such beings. For example, Missouri Voodooists called on 
Samunga when gathering mud, presumably for charms and spells. 18 

The Anglo cultural zone, in contrast, had no pantheon of deities to call on for 
magical purposes. Instead, hoodoo doctors in these areas were more likely to call on the 
Christian God for aid. Such was the case with William Adams. According to Adams, 
God supplied all of his powers, which he first came to experience as a small child before 
the Civil War. Adams further elaborated, explaining that God chiefly gives the power to 
cast out or keep away evil spirits and the devil. He exercised his sway over evil through 

18 Pitkin, 185-213, 260-292; Cable, The Grandissimes, 99-101, 135, 182-184, 257, 
272, 311, 447; Mary Owen, "Among the Voodoos," 241-242. 

the power of faith, though often utilizing charms, such as salt and pepper carried in a sack 
hanging from a person's neck, a sovereign mixture for repelling malevolent spirits. The 
practice of attributing the power of conjure to God was widespread throughout the 
English- influenced areas. Students at Virginia's Hampton Institute reported that 
conjurers usually cited God as the source of their abilities. One 1897 article made clear 
the pervasiveness of this view. The reporter observed that a particular conjure woman 
"said she had special revelations from God, as do all the conjure doctors I have ever heard 
of." 19 Belief in the Christian God was typical in the Latin zone as well, even among 
believers in Voodoo. Followers of the religion knew Him as Bon Dieu, meaning "Good 
God" in French. Surprisingly, calling on God for magical aid was rare in New Orleans 
Voodoo. While most recognized God as the supreme deity and prayed to Him in the 
typical Catholic manner, most thought Him too lofty and detached from the world to be 
called on in magic. 20 On the border of the Latin cultural area, God was more prominent 
in magic. 21 Mary Alicia Owen, for instance, recorded that part of the preparation of a 
"luck-ball" required an incantation opening with the words, "The God before me, God 
behind me, God be with me," and ending, "I call for it in the Name of God." 22 

While hoodooists in the Latin cultural zone typically attributed the power of 
conjure to pre-Christian deities and most conjurers in the Anglo area preferred to credit 

19 "Some Conjure Doctors We Have Heard Of," 37. 

20 This concept of God is the same in Haitian Vodou. See Metraux, 83-84. 

21 Adams, Rawick, ed., supplement 2, vol. 2, 16-22; "Some Conjure Doctors We 
Have Heard Of," 37-38; W. and C, 38-39; Cable, The Grandissimes, 453-456, 468; Mary 
Owen, "Among the Voodoos," 232-233. 


Mary Owen, "Among the Voodoos," 232-233. 

God, a third source sometimes appeared throughout both regions. This was the devil of 
Christian belief. Many non-conjurers attributed all hoodoo to him. William Adams, who 
claimed his powers from God, affirmed that others gained their power from evil sources. 
Likewise, an anonymous contributor to the Southern Workman reported on a conjurer he 
knew, who supposedly learned magic by consulting the devil. In some cases, nineteenth- 
century hoodoo doctors agreed, though open admissions of leagues with Satan were rare. 
In the early twentieth century, Zora Neale Hurston discovered one such practitioner, who 
she called Dr. Barnes. Before undertaking spells, Barnes would go to a fork in the road at 
midnight, where he prayed to the devil for success in his spells. More typical than Dr. 
Barnes were those who accepted power from the hands of both God and the devil. 
Although Christian theology typically depicts the devil as the opposite of God, to 
pragmatic conjurers, either could be relied on for aid. The nature of the work to be 
accomplished was the determining factor in hoodooists' choice of spiritual being. This 
practice was usual for Missouri hoodooists. "King Alexander," the most renowned of the 
conjurers interviewed by Owen, claimed to be able to control the devil, using him in the 
making of "bad tricks." For charms designed to bring positive results, he called on God 
for aid. 23 

The means of acquiring supernatural powers were as varied as their sources, but 
they fell into three categories. First, some hoodoo doctors were specially gifted with the 
ability to conjure. Such was the case with William Adams. He answered an interviewer 

23 Joyner, 144-150; Adams, Rawick, ed., supplement 2, vol. 2, 16-22; "Some 
Conjure Doctors We Have Heard Of," 38; Herron, 117; Hurston, "Hoodoo in America," 
390-391; Mary Owen, "Among the Voodoos," 231-235. See also Livermore, 254-255, 
who describes an exhorter/conjurer who prayed to both God in the devil during a church 

who had asked how he learned to conjure by saying, "Well, I's don' larn it. It come to 
me. We'n de Lawd gives sich powah to a person, it jus' comes to them." 24 Though such 
blessings happened throughout the South, it was most common in the English-influenced 
lands, where Protestant Christianity stressed familiarity with the Bible. To justify his 
occult practices, Adams relied on the Bible, specifically citing Mark 3:14-15. The 
scripture reads, "And he ordained twelve, that they should be with him, and that he might 
send them forth to preach; And to have power to heal sicknesses, and to cast out devils." 
For Adams, who claimed that the reason for his abilities was a spiritual gift to drive out 
evil spirits, these verses provided scriptural proof of their existence. Other Biblical 
teachings likewise favored the view that ability to conjure was an unsought blessing from 
God. One such reference is 1 Corinthians 12. It describes such spiritual gifts as healing, 
prophecy, tongues, and discerning of spirits to be manifestations of the indwelling Holy 
Spirit, who gives them to individuals in order to make them productive servants of God. 
Within a worldview that credited God or other supernatural beings with the ability to 
confer magical aptitude on humans, people did not need to seek out the divine. It found 
them. Most often, indications of being endowed with magical powers simply took the 
form of certain signs attending the birth or life of the hoodoo doctor-to-be. Unusual 
sequences of birth could indicate that one possessed inherent powers of conjuration. 
Being a twin, the next born after twins, or the seventh son of a seventh son designated 
many as trick doctors. Strange circumstances in the birth itself were another way for 
blacks to recognize a potential conjurer. Being delivered feet first or with a caul over 
one's face were two of the most commonly recognized of these signs. Other conjurers 

24 Adams, Rawick, ed., supplement 2, vol. 2, 17. 

were readily identifiable by unusual physical features, such as light or different colored 
eyes, red eyes, albinism, serious deformities or disabilities, strange birthmarks, or perhaps 
the best-known peculiarity, blue gums. Not all divinely-gifted hoodooists were so from 
birth, however. For example, in Conjuring Culture, Theophus H. Smith wrote that 
Sojourner Truth, the famous antebellum black activist and religious leader, was a 
conjurer, given prophetic powers as a gift from God through divine visions. Smith's 
interpretation matched that of William Adams' understanding of God's magical role in 
the world. 25 

While most conjurers welcomed divine gifts of magical powers, a few did not, 
particularly when they came from beings other than God. One example of an unwilling 
tool of the supernatural was Robert Williams. He was driven to conjure after three people 
with whom he had recently had contact sickened and died. The black community of 
Grovetown, Georgia, his home, refused to further associate with him. They accused him 
of possessing evil powers. The result was that he had to move outside the town and earn 
a living through the practice of magic. A particularly powerful story of one who tried to 
flee his assigned role as a hoodooist was that of Donis, a late nineteenth- or early 
twentieth-century conjurer. Having no aspirations to practice hoodoo, he unsuspectingly: 

picked up a hat that had been blown from another negro's head in a 
whirlwind. He handed the hat back to the man. A few hours later the 
owner of the hat stooped to untangle the traces from his black mule's leg. 
He was laughing. The mule became frightened and kicked the man to 

25 Adams, Rawick, ed., supplement 2, vol. 2, 17; Joyner, 83, 146, 284; Raboteau, 
146; Herron, 117; Smith, 162-174; Sojourner Truth, Narrative of Sojourner Truth, a 
Northern Slave, Emancipated from Bodily Sevitude by the State of New York, in 1828, in 
Slave Narratives, ed. William L. Andrews and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Library of America 
Series, no.l 14 (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 2000), 567-676; 
Puckett, 214-215. 


death. He had died laughing aloud, and his death was attributed to Donis 
who had taken the hat from the devil in the whirlwind. Men would no 
longer work around him. He could not get a place to stay or eat. 
Eventually he was forced to live away from his fellows . . . and follow 
conjuring as a trade. 26 

Fortunately for nineteenth-century African- Americans, the experiences of Williams and 

Donis were uncommon, and the temporal rewards of hoodoo were often enough to 

persuade even the reluctant to embrace their position. 27 

Inheritance of supernatural abilities from forebears was a second means of 

obtaining the ability to conjure. Before the Civil War, slaves generally held that native 

Africans possessed supernatural powers by virtue of the land of their birth. In New 

Orleans, Dr. John Bayou claimed to be the child of a Senegalese prince. Without doubt, 

he was a native African, as witnessed by ceremonial scarring on his temples and cheeks. 

His ancestry helped him build a reputation as a mighty Voodoo sorcerer that warranted an 

obituary in Harper 's Weekly upon his death in 1885. Belief in the magical aptitude of 

native Africans was not confined to the Latin cultural area, however. The Georgia 

Writers Project, under the aegis of the Works Progress Administration, found that belief 

in their supernatural abilities was widespread among the state's coastal blacks as late as 

the 1930s. Charles Hunter, an African- American resident of Harrington, Georgia, told of 

a conjurer he knew as a boy. The conjurer, one Alexander, was African-born, a 

circumstance that he claimed gave him the ability to harm others, cure all diseases, and 

even fly. The latter, Alexander maintained, was an ability possessed by his entire African 


Bass, "Mojo," 83. 

27 Bass, "Mojo," 83; Steiner, "Observations on the Practice of Conjuring in 
Georgia," 178-179. 

family. Georgia blacks also attributed the powers of invisibility, to make others invisible, 
and to boil water without fire to those of African birth. More important than birthplace, 
however, were immediate ancestors who were conjurers. The best-known cases of 
parent-to-child inheritance were the daughter and granddaughter of Marie Laveau, who 
reportedly took over the practice of the original. Whether the stories of the multiple 
Laveaus were true or not, kinship to Marie Laveau, genuine or fictional, was of great 
benefit to New Orleans hoodooists. When Zora Neale Hurston interviewed many of the 
city's conjurers during the 1920s and 1930s, at least two of them claimed to be grand 
nephews of the great Voodoo queen. Moreover, the importance of a hoodooist for a 
parent was not limited to Louisiana. Second in fame only to Marie Laveau, Stephaney 
Robinson, better known as Dr. Buzzard of Beaufort, South Carolina, claimed to be the 
son of a conjurer. Following his death in the mid-twentieth century, his son-in-law took 
over the family business, adopting the name, "Dr. Buzzard," for his own, though he was 
more affectionately known as "Buzzy." "Aunt" Mymee Whitehead, a conjure woman 
who served as the childhood nurse of Mary Alicia Owen, was doubly blessed as the child 
of an African sorceress who gave birth to her shortly after arriving in America. 
According to Mymee, her mother's power was so great that she fled her native land on 
board a slave ship to escape the wrath of her fellow countrymen, who both hated and 
feared her. 28 

28 Hearn, "Last of the Voudoos," 726-727; Tallant, Voodoo in New Orleans, 33-39; 
Georgia Writer's Project, Savannah Unit, Drums and Shadows, 7, 24, 28, 67-69, 121, 
168-169, 177; Hurston, "Hoodoo in America," 326-362; McTeer, Fifty Years as a 
Lowcountry Witch Doctor, 21-30; Pinckney, 119-120. 

Although most conjurers would prefer to be gifted with or inherit supernatural 
power, those who were not could overcome this misfortune through ritual initiations, 
which were far more common in the Latin cultural zone. Unfortunately, few accounts of 
these exist from the nineteenth century. The easiest way to overcome the misfortunes of 
birth or divine favor was also the most sinister, consisting of a pact with the devil. One 
of the few to speak from firsthand knowledge of this was Zora Neale Hurston. During the 
course of her investigations, Hurston underwent several initiations by various hoodoo 
doctors, the most simple of which consisted of Dr. Barnes' and her trip to a fork in a road 
at midnight, where they prayed to the devil for success. While Hurston considered this to 
be "no real initiation ceremony," it strongly resembled several rituals of selling one's soul 
recorded by Harry Middleton Hyatt. 29 Like Hurston's experience, Hyatt's accounts 
typically consisted of praying to the devil at the fork in a road or crossroads, sometimes 
with the added feature that the pacts must be contracted at midnight. 30 

More rigorous, but lacking the indebtedness to Satan, were the rituals by which 
Latin-area Voodooists gained their powers. Hurston underwent several. Samuel 
Thompson supervised one of the more complex of these rites. Hurston's initiation began 
simply, with the wearing of a stocking on her right foot for nine nights. For these days, 
she was to refrain from sexually defiling herself in mind or action. In preparation for the 
rest of the initiation, she paid Thompson an unspecified sum and purchased three snake 
skins, one of a water moccasin, one of a kingsnake, and one of a rattlesnake. At the end 

29 Hurston, "Hoodoo in America," 290. 

30 Hurston, "Hoodoo in America," 390-391; Hyatt, Hoodoo-Conjuration- 
Witchcraft-Rootwork, 97-1 1 1. 

of the nine days, Hurston returned to Thompson, who prayed that the "Great One" would 
enter the skins. The moccasin skin was placed upon a couch draped in green, and 
Hurston lay nude and face down upon the couch. At her head was ajar of water for the 
serpent spirit. For three days, Hurston lay thus, in the belief that her soul was standing 
before the Great One, seeking favor. 31 

Her vigil ended at 1 1 :00 on St. Joseph's Day, March 19. At this time, Thompson 
and two other men approached. After passing Hurston through running water, they 
painted a lightening bolt across her back, a sun on her forehead, and eyes on her cheeks. 
The lightening stroke indicated the Great One's method of speaking to her through 
storms. During this process, the men dressed her in new clothes and a veil. Next, others 
entered the room and performed ceremonies, after which they cut their fingers as well as 
one of Hurston's. They then mingled their blood with wine in a glass. Each person 
present drank some of the mixture. At 12:00, Thompson and his assistants sat Hurston 
before an altar bearing a communion candle, with her name set into it with sand. Copious 
amounts of food and various sacred items covered the rest of the altar's surface. After 
asking the Great One to accept Hurston, Thompson lifted her veil and placed a sacred 
crown upon her head. A ritual feast followed. 32 

The final act of the initiation took place outside at midnight. Its chief features 
included making a broom and sacrificing a sheep. As the sheep lay dying with its throat 
slit, those present thrust nine sheets of paper, on which a petition for power from Hurston 
had been written nine times, into the sheep's wound. The reason for this seemingly 

31 Hurston, "Hoodoo in America," 357-360. 
32 Ibid. 

inhumane act was so that the sheep would cry out the petition to the Great One with its 
dying breath. As long as blood continued to flow from the sheep, one of those present 
dipped the broom into the blood and swept the ground. After the animal was dead, they 
dug the earth from beneath it and buried it, placing a white candle on its grave. From this 
point forward, Hurston had a special relationship to the Great One, doubtless identical 
with Voodoo Magnian and Danny, who the previous century's devotees worshiped in the 
form of a snake and who ruled the storm. 33 

The most reliable account of nineteenth-century Voodoo initiations came from 
Missouri. One of those recorded by Mary Alicia Owen consisted of walking backward, 
with uncovered head and feet, into a fallow field at midnight. There, the initiate would 
pull up a weed from behind his or her back, which he or she would then take home to 
keep under the bed until morning. Upon waking, he or she would strip off the leaves and 
make them into a packet, to be worn under the right arm for nine days. At the end of the 
specified period, the leaves were to be removed and scattered in each of the four 
directions by throwing them over the right shoulder. 34 

Although most initiations took place in the Latin area, they sometimes appeared 
elsewhere. For instance, George Foss of Virginia, told stories of Jim Royal, a slave, who 
gained magical powers by undergoing an initiation. It involved being locked in an 
outhouse into which a variety of frightening creatures entered to test his mettle. While 
Foss' stories were folkloric, Carl Carmer recorded a rare factual account of an Anglo-area 
initiation in Stars Fell on Alabama. According to the author, Ida Carter began her self- 

33 Ibid. 

34 Mary Owen, "Among the Voodoos," 231-232. 

initiation when she was seven years old by burning seven candles all night on May 1 . 35 
She did so each night for the next six days. Every May for seven years, she repeated the 
process. Before she reached her fourteenth year, she had become a conjure woman 
known as "Seven Sisters." Unlike New Orleans Voodooists, who offered themselves to a 
particular god, Carter entered into a special relationship with Jesus Christ, who revealed 
whatever she needed to know. 36 

Regardless of the manner in which conjurers gained their supernatural abilities, 
virtually all underwent a period of religious training. In the area settled by the French and 
Spanish, the learning process often took the form of apprenticeship to master conjurers. 
In her study of Missouri hoodooists, Owen discovered that following initiation, conjurers- 
to-be underwent periods of study under members of the opposite sex. If a teacher of the 
proper sex was unavailable, students and teachers took turns playing the role of the 
missing gender. Moreover, throughout the course of the initiation, novices would adopt a 
secret name, which he or she would use when performing spells. The first objective was 
to learn "luck numbers" which would appear in charms and spells to ensure their success. 
Second, apprentices studied the various materials used to make charms, learning their 
virtues, propitious harvest times, and other secrets. Tutelage in the manufacture of such 
charms followed. The next step in the process of apprenticeship was learning of the lore 

35 Since the woman Carmer met was evidently mature and possibly past middle 
age, this initiation likely took place during the nineteenth century. In addition, Carter's 
initiation, which took place in southeastern Alabama, may have been influenced by 
Voodoo or Nanigo practiced in the nearby Latin-settled states of Louisiana and Florida, or 
even in the territory around Mobile, Alabama, which was itself once a French settlement. 

36 W. K. McNeil, ed., Ghost Stories from the American South (Little Rock: August 
House, 1985), 115-1 19; Carmer, 193, 215-218. 

of the Grandfather Rattlesnake, the Voodoo Magnian of New Orleans Voodoo. Finally, 
novices participated in two dances: a snake dance in honor of Grandfather Rattlesnake, 
which supposedly gave them strength of mind and a fire dance to gain strength of body. 
Only when these steps were complete did potential conjurers enter the ranks of "the 
Circle," a decentralized Missouri hoodoo society. 37 

If Hurston's later reports can be applied to the nineteenth century, a similar 
process of apprenticeship prevailed in New Orleans. Under Father Simms, known as "the 
Frizzly Rooster," she began her course of study by helping her master in the more 
mundane tasks of hoodoo, including spreading magical powders around clients' homes 
and other tasks requiring only superficial knowledge. During this time, Simms never told 
her the purpose of what she was doing. After two weeks, Simms initiated her in a manner 
similar to that she underwent with Samuel Thompson, giving her the title "Boss of 
Candles." Following this ceremony, she began to hold her meetings with clients. During 
this time, she consulted Simms as to what steps should be taken in particular 
circumstances, learning his greatest magical formulas in the process. 38 

Those from the Anglo area, who usually relied on God for divine inspiration, also 
studied magic. Seven Sisters, who maintained that "a spirit from the Lord Jesus Christ" 
told her how to perform magic, admitted that there had been an "old voodoo woman lived 
next my mammy's cabin. She tol' me how to trick." 39 Ironically, she went on to define 
voodoo as evil, while proclaiming her magic as good. Even William Adams, who 

37 Mary Owen, "Among the Voodoos," 230-238. 

38 Hurston, "Hoodoo in America," 380-382; Hurston, Mules and Men, 213-221. 

39 Carmer,218. 

professed that he did not need to learn magic because God revealed all he needed to 
know, stated that he had learned some of the "signs dat de Lawd uses to reveal His laws" 
from his mother and other people during his days as a slave child. As in so many 
professions, both innate ability and a period of learning gave conjurers the tools they 
needed to operate in nineteenth-century America. 40 

Conjurers throughout the South usually exerted their power in the manufacture of 
powders, washes, and charms, each with its own indwelling spirit. Charms, the most 
popular form of hoodooists manufactures, were commonly known as "hands," "jacks," 
"tobies," "mojos," or "luck balls" when employed for benevolent ends and "tricks," 
"wanga bags," or "conjure bags" when used to harm someone. 41 In the manufacture of 
these items, spirits other than the hoodoo doctors' ultimate source of power played a role. 
These spirits were of two sorts. The first were animistic spirits, which, it was claimed, 
dwelt in every natural and manufactured item, from animals to trees to household items 
like needles and buttons. Ruth Bass' "Mojo: The Strange Magic That Works in the South 
To-day" persuasively argued the tenacity of the belief in animistic spirits among southern 
blacks. Bass recorded that conjurers of her acquaintance spoke to pots when they refused 
to boil, fish hooks when they failed to catch fish, and trees when they wished to learn 
wisdom. One ninety-six-year-old conjurer, called "Divinity," explained the virtues of 
herbs by stating that their indwelling spirits were what healed various ailments by driving 
them away. In order to prove his point, he offered to take the author to a spring that was 

^Carmer, 217-218; Adams, Rawick, ed., supplement 2, vol. 2, 17. 

41 For an exhaustive treatment of patterns in conjure, see Michael E. Bell, "Pattern, 
Structure, and Logic in Afro- American Hoodoo Performance" (Ph.D. diss., Indiana 
University, 1980). See also Whitten, 310-325 


haunted by the ghost of a bucket. Paraphrasing Divinity, Bass wrote, "Now if that bucket 
didn't have a spirit where did its ghost come from?" 42 By the late nineteenth century, 
explicit recognition of this belief had begun to fade, but though disappearing from blacks' 
personal theologies, it remained strong in the practice of magic. According to former 
slave Henry F. Pyles, a hand designed to attract women to its possessor must be soaked in 
whiskey. The act was designed to win the favor of the charm's indwelling spirit. This 
practice of "feeding" the hand played a role in the manufacture of a charm created by 
King Alexander, who combined several items in a luck ball, upon which he spat whiskey. 
After giving the charm to Mary Owen, he instructed her to wet it once a week in order to 
keep its spirit strong. 43 

A second type of spirits were those of humans. Most frequently, conjurers used 
them after the death of their bodies in the form of dirt collected from graves, called 
"goopher dust" in the Anglo zone, or by burying items in graves. A onetime Florida 
slave, Samuel Simeon Andrews, called on the power of the dead when he anointed his 
feet with goopher dust to elude slave-tracking dogs. At times, hoodoo doctors used body 
parts, though these were more difficult to come by. One star-crossed lover reported that 
during the late 1 800s, a rival stole his wife from him by using a bone from a dead 
preacher. In rare cases, the human spirit did not have to be that of a dead person. For 

42 Bass, "Mojo," 88. 

43 Bass, "Mojo," 87-88; Pyles, 328-329; Mary Owen, "Among the Voodoos," 233. 
For more on Divinity, see Ruth Bass, "The Little Man," Scribner's Magazine 97 (1935): 

example, when King Alexander spat whiskey on charms, he claimed that part of his spirit 
was entering them. 44 

While they offered spells and charms for virtually any desired result, hoodoo 
doctors' business consisted of three basic types. The first class of customers was 
composed of those who simply wanted to employ conjurers' powers of divination, most 
commonly to foresee the future. This type of magic was easily accomplished through the 
use of playing cards, coffee grounds, water- filled gourds, or eggs broken in water to tell 
fortunes. Those who hoped to purchase charms to bring about specific results, ranging 
from the prevention of disease to success in love, formed a second class of customer. As 
with fortune-telling, these cases were usually simple, consisting of casting spells and/or 
making charms in accordance with customers' requests. Examples of this type of conjure 
were the cases of former slaves like Frederick Douglass and Henry Bibb, who obtained 
charms designed for the express purpose of averting punishment by cruel masters. Those 
who received the greatest proportion of the hoodooists' attention, however, were those 
who believed themselves to have been conjured. Such cases consisted of a multi-step 
process divided into three phases: diagnosis, curing, and turning back. 45 The first phase, 
diagnosis, had two steps. To begin with, hoodoo doctors had to determine whether 
victims' afflictions were the result of magic and what form it took. Next, they had to 

"Mary Owen, "Among the Voodoos," 233; Pinckney, 54-55, 95, 102, 107, 155; 
Samuel Simeon Andrews, interview by Rachel A. Austin (Jacksonville, FL, October 27, 
1936), The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, George P. Rawick, ed., 
(Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Company, 1976), vol. 17, 10-20; Hyatt, Hoodoo- 
Conjuration- Witchcraft-Rootwork, 284-286. 

45 For the primary influence behind my understanding of the process of curing 
conjure, see Bacon, 210-211. 

discover who was to blame. Both steps often involved some form of divination, similar 
to that used in fortune telling. Following diagnosis, hoodooists cured the problem, again 
in two steps. The first and most important of these was to eliminate the source of the 
malevolent magic, which was often some form of a physical conjure bag or trick located 
by divination. Second, hoodooists removed the symptoms of conjuration from the victim. 
The final phase, consisting of only one step, involved turning the spell back on the one 
who had cast it. 46 

Several examples of curing conjure exist from the nineteenth century. Daniel 
Webster Davis recorded a composite account of this three-phase cure in an 1898 article 
for Southern Workman. According to Davis, a typical case of counter-conjure consisted 
of the doctor, a male in this account, identifying the presence of conjure, which would 
result in snakes infesting her body, her hair falling out, and eventual death. He then 
proceeded to announce that the female client had an enemy who was in love with her 
husband, though remaining vague as to the person's identity. Then, he discovered the 
location of a harmful charm by sprinkling the blood of a chicken into his left hand and 
then striking it with the forefinger of the other hand. The direction in which the most 
blood flew was that in which the immediate source of the evil magic lay. Following the 
blood, the hoodooist dug until uncovering a bottle containing various articles ranging 
from a dead snake to bent needles. With the source of the malady removed, the conjurer 

46 Ann Parker, interview by Mary A. Hicks (Raleigh, NC, October 27, 1936), The 
American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, George P. Rawick, ed., (Westport, CT: 
Greenwood Publishing Company, 1976), vol. 15, 157; Brown, My Southern Home, 70; 
Breslaw, 535-556; Bacon, 210-211; Bibb, 26-27; Douglass, 41-42. 


easily cured the symptoms by application of a variety of unidentified home remedies. His 
last act was to turn the spell back on the one who had cast it. 47 

While the account given by Davis illustrates the classic process of diagnosis and 
cure, not all cases employed the full five-step process. One of the cases treated by Zippy 
Tull was an example. Around the outbreak of the Civil War, a man from Princess Ann, 
Maryland, named George, went to see Tull in order to have his fortune told. What he got 
was much more. After using cards to foresee his future, Tull revealed that she had also 
found that he was the victim of conjure, brought about by a "big dark woman." The 
mysterious woman, she said, hated George's parents and had already killed his dog. 
Next, instead of simply leaving the identification of the enemy as a brief description, she 
used magic to compel her to approach George's mother and reveal her deeds. Tull 
skipped the third step of diagnosis, however, not bothering to seek for a hidden charm. 
Furthermore, Tull combined the curing and turning back phases into one, instructing 
George to fill a bottle with new pins and needles, his own urine, and several other 
unnamed materials. The bottle, she said, should then be buried upside down in his 
fireplace and covered with a brick. As the liquid leaked from the bottle, the enemy would 
pine away. Once it was all gone, she would be dead, and his ailment would leave him. 
When his enemy died, from suffocation in this case, the first step of the curing phase was 
also accomplished, due to the elimination of the source of the malevolent magic. 48 

47 Daniel Davis, 251-252. In this account, Davis altered the order of the steps, 
stating that the doctor offered to turn back the spell immediately after rinding the buried 
charm, before completing the cure. 

48 Hyatt, Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft-Rootwork, 923-924; Herron, 251-252. 

The choice of items and actions used in making charms and performing spells 
rested with the conjurer but relied on the universal magical principles of contagion and 
sympathy and appeals to spirits. Contagion is the idea that objects once in contact 
continue to influence each other. On the other hand, the principle of sympathy holds that 
objects that possess characteristics similar to spells' intended results can bring them into 
being. The best materials to use for contagious magic were portions of conjure victims' 
bodies or their byproducts, such as hair, fingernail clippings, sweat, or excrement. When 
these materials were difficult or impossible to obtain, objects that have merely touched 
the body will do. In some cases, the items used need only to have been in metaphysical 
contact with the person to be conjured. Written names sometimes substituted for physical 
contact, which was particularly common in court case spells common in the late 
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. 49 The principle of sympathy, in contrast, was 
not specific to the individuals to be conjured. For instance, by sprinkling dried and 
powdered reptiles, amphibians, or other creatures in the food of victims, hoodoo doctors 
could reportedly cause them to enter the bodies of people who ate it. Other forms of 
sympathy were not so blatant. 50 Pillow magic, in which hoodooists caused feathers inside 
pillows to form shapes which would then harm sleepers, is one such example. In one 
case, a woman whose husband had taken ill consulted a conjurer, who told her to open his 
pillow. Inside, she found "half a dozen or more tiny conglomerations of feathers, closely 

49 For examples, see Hurston, Mules and Men, 274-275. Hurston also provides an 
example, supposedly utilized by Marie Laveau herself, in "Hoodoo in America," 332- 

50 The famed Voodoo dolls of popular conceptions of African- American sorcery 
were yet another form of contagious magic. I do not give them further attention for the 
simple fact that they were rare in American South. 

resembling the plumes of a hearse." 51 After she removed and destroyed them, the man 
recovered. Time and spatial orientation also frequently appeared in sympathetic magic. 
Night was the typical time for performing malevolent magic, due to its association with 
mystery and evil. Likewise, inversion of objects was one means of reversing the effects 
of magic. In practice, the principles of contagion and sympathy operated in conjunction 
to bring about desired results. 52 

Mrs. Williams of Baltimore, Maryland, experienced one of the best examples of 
the interplay between contagion and sympathy. In this case, a woman named Harriet 
Henderson conjured Williams' grandmother, who had once been her friend, by secretly 
cutting a coffin-shaped piece of cloth from her underwear as it lay drying on a bush. 
Williams' grandmother sewed the hole shut without realizing its cause. Henderson then 
returned or sent an agent, stealing the repaired underwear. After doing so, she took a 
stick, measuring a track left by the victim's bare foot. After doing so, she wrapped the 
stick in the stolen garment and buried it at the foot of the newest grave in a cemetery. 
Only timely intervention by a more powerful conjurer saved Williams' grandmother, who 
quickly lost the power of speech and the ability to walk. 53 

In Williams' account, the principle of contagion was represented by two of the 
items used in the spell, the underwear and the stick. The garment, which had once been 

51 M. P. Handy, "Witchcraft Among the Negroes," Appleton 's Journal: A 
Magazine of General Literature 8 (1872): 666. 

52 Steiner, "Observations," 177-180. For a more complete explanation for the 
principles of sympathy and contagion, see James G. Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study 
in Magic and Religion (1922; reprint, New York: Macmillan, 1951), 12-52. 


Hyatt, Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft-Rootwork, 926-928. 

in intimate contact with the victim's body, provided a means by which Henderson could 
harm her from a distance. The stick likewise represented Williams' grandmother. By 
being used to measure a footprint made by the bare foot of the victim, the stick came to 
represent the everyday activities of William's grandmother. Henderson's possession of 
the underwear and stick, however, was not enough to bring about the death of her onetime 
friend. On the contrary, she had to employ sympathetic magic to bring about the desired 
result. This was likewise undertaken in more than one step, each of which centered 
around images of death. When Henderson cut the coffin- shaped piece out of the 
underwear, she set up a situation in which the victim would most likely sew it up. By 
doing so, Williams' grandmother unwittingly "closed" her own coffin. By burying the 
underwear and stick in a grave, Henderson reinforced the sympathetic power of death. 
Mrs. Williams' account was but one combination of contagion and sympathy used by 
conjurers. Common variations were those in which charms were prepared without 
utilizing contagion in their manufacture. Nevertheless, contagion played a role in the 
means of affecting victims. In such cases, conjurers contrived a means to bring their 
charms into contact with the person to be affected, often by burying them along a route 
commonly taken by the victim. Whatever the spell, contagion and sympathy always 
played a part in successful hoodoo spells and charms. 54 

While contagion and sympathy were the primary forces in the performance of 
individual acts of conjure, some items had spirits whose alleged power extended beyond 
these principles. In the Latin cultural zone, Voodoo conjurers relied heavily on their 
gods, building altars, burning candles, and making sacrifices to them based on their 



personalities. In places settled by the English, hoodooists called on God for similar 
purposes, and sacrifices were far from unknown. More commonly used, particularly in 
the Anglo lands, were powerful spirits which inhabited certain items, regardless of their 
sympathetic value. The best known of these was High John the Conqueror Root, called 
the "king root of the forest" by blacks. Hoodoo doctors reportedly used it for a wide 
variety of purposes, ranging from winning love to curing diseases. 55 One author 
maintained that its power was so respected that believers "quake when they see a bit of it 
in the hand of anyone." 56 Exceptionally strong spiritual power also resided in certain 
bones from black cats, which could only be obtained by boiling them alive. Once the 
flesh fell from the bones, the ones that possessed magic power would rise to the surface 
of the water. By placing one of these in his or her mouth, a conjurer could supposedly 
become invisible. Goopher dust, which sympathetically possessed the power to cause 
death, could also be employed for virtually any use due to the spirits of the dead who 
dwelt within it. Samuel Simeon Andrews, who used it to escape slavery, was but one 
example of a man who looked beyond its sympathetic value. Closely related to these 
spirits were lucky or unlucky days and numbers, which also possessed magical properties 
for reasons independent of contagion and sympathy. For instance, some North Carolina 
conjurers believed that Friday was a bad day to begin new work. Likewise, Missouri 


For thorough investigations of John the Conqueror and its origins, see Carolyn 
Morrow Long, "John the Conqueror: From Root-Charm to Commercial Product," 
Pharmacy in History 39 (1997): 47-53; Varro E. Tyler, "The Elusive History of High 
John the Conqueror Root," Pharmacy in History 33 (1991): 164-166; Long, Spiritual 
Merchants, 221-246. According to Long, the plant originally gained its importance as a 
love charm, due to its phallic appearance. Whatever its original functions, its uses had 
grown more diverse by the late nineteenth century. 


Folk-Lore and Ethnology," Southern Workman 28 (1899): 1 12 

hoodoo doctors specified certain numbers to be used in spells and charms, which would 
help insure their success. According to King Alexander, three and seven were good 
numbers to conjure with, but nine and five were better. The best number for hoodooing, 
however, was four times four or four times four times four. In contrast, ten was an 
unlucky number, and conjurers carefully avoided it. Like lucky numbers, the color red 
carried special weight in the spirit world. Conjurers throughout the South relied on it in 
the manufacture of charms for both good and evil results. 57 

Though the theory and practice of hoodoo were very similar in both cultural 
zones, differences sometimes arose. The most notable of these appeared in the choices of 
magical elements used in the manufacture of charms. For instance, New Orleans 
hoodooists' use of altars, statues of saints, and offerings to appeal to gods were practically 
unknown outside of the Latin area. Meanwhile, goopher dust appeared far more 
frequently in the Anglo area. Other items were also rare outside of one or the other 
cultural area. Two such were beef tongues, which New Orleans' conjurers often 
employed in court case spells, and conjure bottles, which commonly took the place of 
conjure bags in the Anglo zone. Nevertheless, many items were popular in both cultural 
areas. The best examples of such materials were like High John the Conqueror Root and 

"Hyatt, Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft-Rootwork, 923-929; "Folk-Lore and 
Ethnology," 28 (1899): 1 12; Mary Owen, Voodoo Tales, 113, 174; Joseph A. Haskell, 
"Sacrificial Offerings among North Carolina Negroes," Journal of American Folk-lore 4 
(1891): 267; Mary Owen, "Among the Voodoos," 231; "Folk-Lore and Ethnology," 28 
(1899): 112; "Folk-Lore and Ethnology" Southern Workman 28 (1899): 315. 

black cat bones, which were respected throughout the South by the end of the nineteenth 
century. 58 

Whatever their relationship to the divine or the depth of their knowledge, no 
conjurer would be successful without a reputation. Throughout the American South, 
many African- Americans viewed hoodoo doctors with great trepidation, springing from 
their fear of conjurers' ability to lay "tricks" or "hexes" against their victims. It was this 
very dread, though, that won them many of their clients. For example, when struck with 
unusual illnesses, many African- Americans believed that enemy hoodooists were to 
blame. The remedy was to consult conjurers whose power surpassed that of those who 
wrought the initial maladies. Likewise, hoodooists were sometimes able to overcome 
cruel slave masters or employers. Such power, which could defeat evil magicians and 
undermine the strength of the white ruling class, was to be feared. At the same time, 
many turned to hoodoo doctors in the hope of creating positive circumstances, most 
commonly in matters of love or money. Ultimately, this blend of fear and hope did not 
spring fully-formed from the supernatural sources of conjurers' power. Instead, it had to 
be built using primarily word of mouth. Failure to build a reputation could result in 
situations similar to one described by Cornelia Robinson, a former Alabama slave. 
Speaking of her old plantation, she said, "Us had a ol' quack herb doctor on de place. 
Some bad boys went up to his house one night an' poured a whole lot of de medicine 

58 "Folk-Lore and Ethnology," 28 (1899): 1 12; "Folk-Lore and Ethnology," 
Southern Workman 24 (1893): 155; Hurston, Mules and Men, 220-221; Tallant, Voodoo 
in New Orleans, 24-32; Lafcadio Hearn, "New Orleans Superstitions," Harper's Weekly 
Magazine 30 (1885): 843; M. P. Handy, "Witchcraft Among the Negroes," 666-667. 

down him. An honey, dat ol' man died de next day." 59 At the very least, conjurers would 
lose business and thus, temporal power. On the other hand, highly respected hoodooists 
could hope for a career like that of Monroe King, who did not have to work, since those 
who lived in his vicinity "useta give him chickens an' things so's he wouldn't conjure 

'em." 60 

For a conjurer, there was no substitute for successful displays of his or her reputed 
powers. A thorough knowledge of the properties of herbs was one way to make success 
more likely, which was particularly effective in cases of physical illness. Another way 
was to give commonsense advice to those who sought their aid. According to Newbell 
Niles Puckett, who studied the subject in the early twentieth century, conjurers frequently 
supplemented their magic with useful counsel. Advice was especially helpful in matters 
of the heart. One New Orleans hoodooist sold a powder to a lovelorn male client, 
instructing him to sprinkle it upon everything he gave to the woman with whom he was 
infatuated. The objects upon which he was to sprinkle the powder, however, were to be 
frequent gifts of the woman's favorite things. Throughout the courtship, the man was to 
never quarrel with her or show jealousy. The two were married within a few months. 
According to Puckett a conjure woman from Algiers, Louisiana, had a client who wanted 
to stop her husband from arguing with her. The hoodooist gave her a bottle of 

59 Cornelia Robinson, interview by Preston Klein (Opelika, AL, 1937), The 
American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, George P. Rawick, ed. (Westport: 
Greenwood Publishing Company, 1972), vol. 6, 331. 

^Silvia Witherspoon, "Foots Gets Tired from Choppin' Cotton," interview by 
Susie R. O'Brien and John Morgan Smith (AL, June 25, 1937), The American Slave: A 
Composite Autobiography, George P. Rawick, ed. (Westport: Greenwood Publishing 
Company, 1972), vol. 6, 431. 

"medicine," with which she was to fill her mouth whenever her husband showed signs of 
anger. Moreover, she was to hold the formula in her mouth until he calmed down, upon 
which she should swallow it and kiss her husband. Puckett claimed that this spell worked 
so well that many other women soon appeared for the same formula. 61 

Even when hoodoo failed, a clever doctor could blame its failure on the client, 
asserting that he or she did not obey instructions. Such was the case in one story told 
about John, the antebellum black folk hero. According to the story, John approached a 
conjure man in order to buy a charm to let him "cuss his master." 62 The hoodooist gave 
him a charm to carry in his pocket, telling him to keep his hand on it. John tried the 
charm, only to receive a severe whipping from the overseer. When he complained to the 
conjurer, the hoodooist replied, "I gi' you a runnin' han'. Why didn't yer run?" 63 
Another readily applicable way of turning back blame for failure was to accuse the client 
of lacking the necessary faith in the conjurer's powers. With each successful application 
of magic, people's confidence in individual conjurers would grow, increasing the 
likelihood that their treatments would succeed in the minds of their clients. 64 

While conjurers' reputation depended heavily on the effectiveness of their spells 
and charms, hoodoo doctors frequently had to compete with others of the same 
profession. To build their customer base, they played on their clients' intertwined fears 

61 Puckett, Folk Beliefs, 207-210. 

62 Portia Smiley, "Folk-lore from Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and 
Florida," Journal of American Folk-lore 32 (1919): 365. 

63 Smiley, 365. 

"Smiley, 365; Daniel Davis, 252. 

and hopes. Once again, though, a mixture of regional differences and commonalities was 
evident. In Latin areas, hoodooists frequently had a guaranteed reputation because of 
their positions as leaders. Marie Laveau and the other Voodoo queens, who dealt directly 
with the divine, ranked highly among pious folk. To the average believer, such a person 
had a much better chance at performing successful magic than a mere layperson. 
Conjurers from the Anglo zone lacked a specifically African- American faith from which 
to obtain temporal power. Nevertheless, some conjurers used positions as Christian 
ministers to build their reputation. As was the case with Voodoo queens, they relied on 
their reputation for having closer-than-average relationship with the divine to spur their 
business. Such was the case of "Uncle" Aaron, an African- American preacher from 
Virginia. In addition to teaching his congregation from the pulpit, he was feared as a 
conjurer throughout the community. Even in places where Voodoo prevailed among 
conjurers, hoodoo doctors sometimes filled the role of Christian ministers. A Missouri 
conjurer, named Alexander, encountered by Mary Owen claimed to be "king" of the 
African Methodist Church of which he was a member. 65 

When a hoodooist failed to obtain religious office, he or she had to turn to other 
methods of building a reputation. One of the easiest ways to do so was by creating a title, 
designed to impress those with whom they dealt. Male hoodooists, in particular, were 
fond of this method. Such was the case with Owen's Alexander, who insisted on being 
called "King" Alexander. Others used names bearing a specifically religious connotation, 
even when they held no office to warrant them. One example of this practice was "the 

65 Long, Spiritual Merchants, 38-58; Livermore, 254-258; Mary Owen, "Among 
the Voodoos," 240, 24; Hearn, "Last of the Voudoos," 726-727. 

Rev. Mr. H.," who served a Virginian clientele during the mid- to late nineteenth century. 
By far the most commonly used sobriquet was the title "doctor," adopted by hoodooists 
throughout the South. One of the first to do so was "Doctor Hercules," an eighteenth- 
century Georgia slave. Another early practitioner to call himself a doctor was Dr. John 
Bayou of New Orleans. By the late nineteenth century, the practice was widespread. In 
1898, Virginian Daniel Webster Davis wrote of a "doctor" he had known "many years 
before," who used the initials "h.p." after his name, which he intended as an abbreviation 
for "homeopath." 66 

Conjurers living in the Anglo cultural area frequently added the name of a totemic 
animal to their title, a practice which was particularly common in the Sea Islands. 
Moreover, the animals chosen were usually birds or insects, picked for the feeling of 
power or dread they inspired. Dr. Buzzard of Beaufort, South Carolina, was, without 
doubt, the most famous to do so. An actual occurrence, when a group of fishermen died 
at sea, was his inspiration. The boat in which they had set out was eventually found. 
Their bodies were still inside, being eaten by a group of buzzards. Another well-known 
Sea Island conjurer went by the name, "Dr. Bug," but in reputation, he remained a distant 
second to the fearsome Dr. Buzzard. Not all who used titles were men. Ida Carter, better 
known as "Seven Sisters," was an example. Still, the practice was unusual among 
women, who typically kept their original names, without exalted sobriquets. Marie 
Laveau and other Voodoo queens, such as Sanite Dede, Marie Saloppe, and Malvina 

66 Long, Spiritual Merchants, 38-58; Livermore, 254-258; Mary Owen, "Among 
the Voodoos," 230-248; Gomez, 284-285; R., L., G., and A., 30; Hearn, "Last of the 
Voudoos," 726-727; Carmer, 215-222; Tallant, Voodoo in New Orleans, 9-47; Daniel 
Davis, 251. 

Latour, and Aunt Zippy Tull of Maryland were but a few examples of highly successful 
conjure women who saw no need to resort to titles. 67 

Another means of fostering fearful awe was by setting oneself apart from the rest 
of the black community, creating an air of mystery, which was a tactic used heavily by 
hoodooists in the Anglo zone. Conjurers did not mingle freely with their fellow African- 
Americans and actively took steps to dissuade others from approaching them without 
reason. One common way of doing so was by adopting bizarre dress. Most accounts of 
nineteenth-century Anglo-area conjurers describe their unusual raiments. Dr. Buzzard 
reportedly limited his strange dress to a pair of purple-shaded glasses. In contrast, one of 
the more elaborate dressers was the Tennessee conjurer described by Samuel Taylor, who 
arrayed himself in a multicolored coats and chains. Rev. Mr. H. of Virginia "had his hair 
braided like a woman, and rings in his ears." 68 In the lands around New Orleans, where 
Voodoo queens and doctors were key figures in the religious life of slaves and later free 
blacks, they felt no need for unusual everyday dress. Their dealings with the gods made 
them mysterious enough. Nevertheless, before the Civil War, major figures in New 
Orleans Voodoo were invariably free people of color, effectively setting them apart from 
the average African- American. A tendency for conjurers to be free was present to a lesser 
degree throughout the Latin antebellum South. "Aunt" Mymee Whitehead of Missouri, 
for example, was a free woman of color who was also a powerful conjurer. In Anglo 
lands, conjurers were less likely to be free. Instead, during slave days, each large 

67 McTeer, Fifty Years as a Lowcountry Witch Doctor, 21-30; Hyatt, Hoodoo- 
Conjuration-Witchcraft-Rootwork, 5-6, 891-905. 

68 R., L., G., and A, 40. 

plantation was likely to have a resident hoodooist or two. Following emancipation, 
however, conjurers actively sought isolation from their communities. Patrons could only 
reach the island home of Dr. Buzzard by boat. Moreover, his efforts at generating fear 
were so successful that some believed that the necessary boat would appear on its own, 
rowed by buzzards. If someone other than the one for whom it was intended got on 
board, the buzzards would drown the interloper. Other conjurers simply traveled through 
different communities, which had the added benefits of increasing their potential clientele 
and limiting the impact of failure. According to an anonymous 1 878 contributor to 
Southern Workman, traveling conjurers were the norm in the postwar years. In the 1890s, 
Samuel Taylor's conjurer combined monthly tours with bizarre dress to spread his 
influence over a substantial portion of his home state. Even conjurers in the Latin zone 
sometimes chose to travel. King Alexander did so. As Owen stated, this was to make, 
"his movements as mysterious as possible." 69 

Even without the benefits of religious office, fancy titles, and personal mystery, 
conjurers throughout the South had yet another means to build their reputation. In a time 
when hoodoo doctors relied on word of mouth, cleverly-handled interaction with clients 
could make or break careers. Successful conjurers used their dealings with clients to 
further build their fearsome reputations. A few conjurers did so even before examining 
individual clients, most commonly by knowing the names of those who approached them 
before the client spoke. Those who remembered Zippy Tull frequently cited her ability to 
do so. It was particularly easy to create fear during the diagnosis phase, however. In a 

69 Taylor, 77-80; R., L., G., and A., 30; Herron, 251-252; Bruce, 1 1 1-125; Bacon, 
193-194, 209-21 1; Hyatt, Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft-Rootwork, 891-905; W. and 
C, 38; Mary Owen, "Among the Voodoos," 242-244, quoted 244. 

typical case described by Daniel Webster Davis, a woman, feeling physical pains she had 
not felt before, called on a conjure doctor when ordinary remedies failed. The conjurer, 
seeking to convince the sufferer of the supernatural source of the disorder, arrived at 
night. After examining the patient for a few moments, the hoodooist pronounced, "Yes 
hunny, youse bin tricked. . . . Youse got er in'my." 70 Further explanation outlined that the 
enemy was a rival for her husband's affections, who was using magic to kill her. The 
only remedy was stronger magic, which of course, the conjurer could supply. In cases 
like the one described by Davis, believers feared for their life. Even those with a more 
scientific inclination might decide that it was better to be safe than sorry. Furthermore, 
the strength of faith generated by such dire pronouncements made it more likely that 
victims would either believe themselves cured following treatment or accept that their 
enemies' magic was simply too strong or had gone too long untreated in cases of failure. 
The fear and hope associated with conjurers could be further heightened during the curing 
phase. One way of doing so was the finding of the tricks, whose presence conjurers could 
easily assure by sleight of hand or a previous visit to the spot where the charm was to be 
found. Likewise, when the diagnosis was that reptiles or other living creatures were 
inhabiting the afflicted, hoodoo doctors frequently produced the culprits, again, 
presumably by trickery. In one case, a conjure doctor supposedly induced a woman to 
expel a scorpion from her mouth. Another claimed that following the ministrations of a 
hoodoo doctor, that the writer's sick grandmother was cured when she succeeded in 
drawing a lizard from her leg and a spool of thread from her right arm. Even by claiming 
that a turned-back spell would kill the one who cast it, conjurers could build their 


Daniel Davis, 251. 

reputation. If someone in the locality happened to die shortly after a conjurer announced 

the doom of a vaguely-described enemy, he or she would automatically become a suspect 

in the affliction of the client. If no one died nearby, observers could assume that the 

antagonist must have been from outside the immediate vicinity. 71 

Conjurers throughout the South were both mystical and pragmatic. Despite 

notable regional distinctions, a mixture of supernaturalism and marketing was constantly 

in evidence. Still, while building reputations relied heavily upon manipulating the 

perceptions of potential clients, frequently descending into outright deception, one must 

not conclude that conjure was mere chicanery. Some were doubtless frauds. For most, 

though, their craft was genuine. Belief in their powers was more important than the 

presence or absence of the spiritual forces that reputedly served as the foundations of their 

skills, taught them to conjure, and operated in the making of charms and casting of spells. 

As William Adams put it, "Thar 'tis 'gain, faith. Dat am w'at counts." 72 Just as it gave 

conjurers temporal power in the black community, so it gave them the ability to perform 

miraculous cures, lay curses on enemies, foretell the future, and otherwise fulfill the 

wishes of their clients. Where did such faith originate? The answer lies in the mixing of 

African, European, and Native American magical beliefs. 

71 Hyatt, Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft-Rootwork, 923-929; Daniel Davis, 251- 
252; R., L., G., and A., 30. 

72 Adams, Rawick, ed., supplement 2, vol. 2, 19. 




During the first half of the twentieth century, scholars debated the degree to which 
African beliefs and practices survived in the New World. Over time, those arguing in 
favor of substantial African survivals prevailed. 1 In light of this current scholarly 
consensus, it is surprising that historians have done little to systematically trace conjure's 
multiple African roots. 2 Nevertheless, its transformation from African religion to 
American magic made it into a microcosm of the African- American experience which 
combined elements of loss with a persistent drive to survive in the face of persecution. 
Nineteenth-century hoodoo was a result of creolization and syncretism, the mixing of 
multiple African, European, and Native American cultures, which together resulted in a 
form of magic unique to the American South. Ultimately, however, the origins of hoodoo 
lie in the traditional religious beliefs of the land from which the slaves' ancestors hailed. 

The roots of conjure extend deep into sub-Saharan Africa, where magic had long 
been a feature of everyday life throughout most of the region. Moreover, no one tribe or 

See Herskovits, The Myth of the Negro Past. 

2 A rare exception to this rule has been Michael Farris Thompson, whose excellent 
book, Flash of the Spirit, examines the links between African- American art and 
philosophy and their counterparts among diverse African peoples. Just as important, 
Michael Gomez has furthered historians' understanding of the impacts of distinct African 
religions on different parts of the South through his book, Exchanging Our Country 


people group can claim to be the origin of hoodoo. 3 Instead, certain groups played greater 
or lesser roles depending heavily on the demographics of slave importation into particular 
areas. As with the performance and marketing of conjure, African influences on hoodoo 
once more fell into the two primary cultural zones, roughly corresponding to the distinct 
areas settled by Latin and Anglo colonists. In the lands settled by the French and 
Spanish, the Fon, Yoruba, Ewe, and Mande speakers of northern West Africa laid the 
groundwork, partially through their heavy importation during the colonial period. In 
Louisiana, in particular, these and closely related peoples made up more than half of all 
Africans brought into the area. During the early republican and antebellum periods, the 
number of slaves from northern West Africa drastically declined. West Central Africans 
replaced them, the largest number of whom hailed from the Kongo kingdom. Despite the 
shift in importation patterns, the early presence of slaves from the closely related cultures 
of the Fon, Ewe, and Yoruba and the more distinct Mande defined the area's magical 
practices. Later arrivals modified but could not replace them. Moreover, in both French 
Louisiana and Spanish Florida, brief spurts of immigration from the Caribbean bolstered 
the influence of the earlier groups. In Louisiana, these were Haitian refugees fleeing 
revolution. The case in Florida was even more pronounced. The late nineteenth-century 
arrival of Afro-Cubans seeking economic opportunity not only bolstered existing beliefs, 
but they also created large black communities in areas where none had existed before. 4 

3 The word "tribe" has fallen from favor among many American historians, who 
prefer to use "ethnic groups" or similar terms to refer to different people groups of Africa. 
Ultimately, however, this practice reflects African- American and American ideals of 
political correctness, which those who advocate them have attempted to foist on Africans, 
who typically prefer to continue to use the traditional "tribe." 

4 Gomez, 38-58, 114-153, 150. 

While West Central Africans proved only a secondary influence in the Latin area, 
they were the primary influence on the magic of the Anglo area, particularly in coastal 
South Carolina and Georgia, where they made up more than half of all imports 
throughout the period when slavery was legal. Once again, the Kongo people were the 
largest contingent among the unwilling arrivals from West Central Africa. Also, as in 
Louisiana, the Mande were a significant, though minority, presence in the area. Although 
the chief features of conjure derived from the Fon-Ewe-Yoruba in the Latin area, Kongo 
in the lands settled by the English, and Mande in both, other groups, including the Igbo, 
Akan, and Ga-Dangme, played important roles in the creation of African- American 
conjure, especially in particular aspects of hoodoo. 5 

The influence of specific African cultures is readily apparent in the unique terms 
often applied to conjure. For instance, "Voodoo" derived from the Fon and Ewe term, 
"vodu," meaning "god" or "worship or fear of the gods." "Hoodoo," originally used in 
the Latin area to identify conjure, most likely derived from "Voodoo," though Zora Neale 
Hurston claimed that it was a corruption of "juju," another West African term, meaning 
"magic" or "charm." 6 Likewise, the Louisiana terms "gris-gris," "zinzin," and 
"wanga,"denoting various types of spells and charms, likewise derive from West African 
terms. "Gris-gris," a general term for magic, came from the Mandingo tribe, a subgroup 
of Mande speakers, who used magical items know as "gerregerys" or "gregory bags," to 
harm others. Mande-speaking members of the Bambara tribe introduced the term, 

5 Ibid. 

6 Likewise, Missouri's "noodoo" almost certainly underwent a similar 
development to "hoodoo." 

"zinzin," which referred to positive charms designed to confer strength or power on their 
possessors. 7 "Wanga," denoting malevolent magic and charms, and the derived terms 
"wangateur" and "wangateuse" were likewise of Mande origin. "Toby," a term used 
primarily but not exclusively for positive charms, reflected the early republican and 
antebellum influx of West Central African Kongos, whose "tobe" charms brought good 
luck to their owners. In Florida, the titles "papa-loi" and "mama-loi," used for Nanigo 
priests and priestesses, were the African- American creolizations of the Yoruba word for a 
diviner-herbalist, "babalawo." Conjure terminology with African origins was rare outside 
of the Latin cultural area. "Goopher," used in such combinations as "goopher doctor" or 
"goopher dust," was an exception to the rule. Employed in coastal Georgia and the 
Carolinas to designate items derived from the dead or persons dealing with them, it most 
likely developed from the Kongo word "kufwa," meaning "to die." "Mojo," and its 
variant "Joe Moe," was a Kongo-derived term found in both cultural zones which 
described magic and charms usually designed for positive ends. 8 In the Kongo kingdom, 
"mooyo" referred to spirits which dwelt within magical charms, a term easily transferred 
to the spirits' dwelling place. 9 

7 "Zinzin" was never a common term. It is virtually unknown today. 

8 For the use of the "Joe Moe" variant, see John Daniels, interview by B. N. (NC), 
The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, George P. Rawick, ed., (Westport, 
CT: Greenwood Publishing Company, 1971), vol. 14, 231. In this case, the Joe Moe was 
used for a malevolent purpose. 

9 A. B. Ellis, "On Vodu Worship," The Popular Science Monthly 38 (1891): 651- 
663; Pitkin, 167; Porteous, 48-63; Nicholas Owen, Journal of a Slave Dealer: A View of 
Some Remarkable Axcedents in the Life ofNics. Owen on the Coast of Africa and 
America from the Year 1746 to the Year 1757, edited and with and Introduction by 
Eveline Martin (London: George Routledge and Sons, Ltd., 1930), 49-50; Robert Farris 
Thompson, Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy (New 

More than simply words survived the Middle Passage, however. In the Latin area, 
African deities continued to play a role in the lives of blacks. According to Kofi Asare 
Opoku, author of West African Traditional Religions, traditional West African gods and 
spirits were of six sorts. First, there was a unique being, often far separated from 
humanity, who gave life and power to all other beings, including lesser gods and spirits. 
Among Fon speakers, this being was known as Mawu-Lisa, an androgynous god/goddess 
incarnate in the moon and sun, respectively. Among Yoruba speakers, Olorun filled the 
role of supreme being. Virtually every other West African language and tribe had such a 
god. While Africans prayed to these supreme beings, they rarely offered sacrifices or 
otherwise sought to win their favor. Beings so perfect had no need of such mundane acts 
of service. The next tier in the spiritual hierarchy was filled with ancestral spirits that 
West Africans believed existed alongside their living descendants and were therefore 
honored by offerings of food, celebrations, and sometimes deification. Next followed a 
variety of lesser deities, who, unlike the supreme being, could be relied upon to take 
direct action in the lives of their followers, for good or ill. Each god and goddess played 
a particular role. Among the Fon speakers of Dahomey, Da, chief of the earth deities, 
was a snake god, worshiped in the form of sacred pythons. 10 An important god of the Fon 
and Ewe, Legba, served as a divine linguist, interpreting the decrees of the gods to 
mortals, and trickster. Da was primarily confined to Fon speakers, but Legba-like gods 
appeared in most West African pantheons. For instance, among the Yoruba, Elegba or 

York: Random House, 1983), 105, 117, 166-167; Puckett, Folk Beliefs, 19; Mary Owen, 
"Among the Voodoos," 241; Hyatt, Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft-Rootwork, 11,17, 
275, 278, 280-281, 284, 308, 310, 314, 336, 337, Gomez, 50-56. 

10 Da was also recognized as an early ancestor of the Dahomey kings. 

Eshu fulfilled the same role. Following the lesser deities, were totemic animals and 
plants which were important to particular individuals, families, and tribes. Usually, these 
were reputed to have had a prominent place in the lives of their forebears. Two final 
types of spiritual beings were closely associated with magic. Occupying the fifth level of 
the spiritual hierarchy were beings who assisted sorcerers in the performance of both 
good and evil spells. One of the more well known of these was Sasabonsum, a 
cannibalistic spirit who aided Tshi-speaking witches in working evil. The sixth tier was 
filled by the indwelling spirits of the charms made by workers of magic." 

Kongolese traditional religion had a similar hierarchy. At the top was Nzambi, 
the supreme being. Below Nzambi were four types of spirits, all of which had once been 
living humans, which together roughly corresponded to the second tier of northern West 
African belief. "Bakulu," meaning "ancestors," were the most important type of spirit 
and were honored in various ceremonies and sacrifices performed by the heads of clans, 
chiefs, and smiths. Next in the ranking were a variety of gods or spirits, called "basimbi," 
who occupied specific territories, localities, villages, and even physical objects such as 
bridges, bends in roads, and rivers. Another type of beings were known as "minkisi." 
They occupied charms made by priests and magicians. While each of these types of 
beings were generally benevolent, a final group of spirits, called "min'kuyu," were 

"Harold Courlander, A Treasury of African Folklore: The Oral Literature, 
Traditions, Myths, Legends, Epics, Tales, Recollections, Wisdom, Sayings, and Humor of 
Africa (New York: Crown Publishers, 1975), 159-160, 187-188; Kofi Asare Opoku, West 
African Traditional Religion (Accra, London, et ah FEP International Private Limited, 
1978), 9-10, 14-18; A. B. Ellis, The Tshi-Speaking Peoples of the Gold Coast of West 
Africa: Their Religion, Manners, Customs, Laws, Language, Etc. (London: Chapman and 
Hall, 1887), 34-38. 

malevolent ghosts. In life, min'kuyu had been witches, who were refused entrance to the 
dwelling place of the ancestors in death. 12 

Blacks did not leave the spiritual hierarchies of Africa behind when dragged from 
their homeland by slave traders. On the contrary, elements of the old religions survived 
in the American South. The most apparent of these were the lesser deities of the Fon, 
Ewe, and Yoruba that survived in the Latin area (see Chart 1). By the nineteenth century, 
however, these lesser deities had also taken over the role of magical helpers, which were 
a separate class in Africa. In French-settled areas, the gods of the Fon and Ewe speakers 
predominated. As in northern West Africa, the serpent god ruled the pantheon. Believers 
in the Fon-speaking Kingdom of Dahomey, worshiped Da as a sacred python. In the 
American South, pythons were unobtainable, forcing substitutions of other snakes. 
African- Americans continued to worship Da in the area around New Orleans, where he 
was known as Blanc Dani. In the United States, the Voodoo queens kept the snakes, of 
indeterminate species, bringing them out during major community rituals, signaling a 
period of praise to and possession by Blanc Dani. As with the supreme god of African 
beliefs, believers only occasionally utilized the serpent god in magic. He was too exalted 
a being. This was not true of the other deities that survived in New Orleans. Legba, the 
second most powerful god of the Fon and Ewe, was always available to those who wished 
to call on him for conjure. Moreover, he retained his African role as the linguist of the 
gods, opening lines of communication to a variety of other beings. Early in major 
Voodoo ceremonies, believers called on Papa Lebat, Liba, or LaBas, the New Orleans 

12 Wyatt MacGaffey, Religion and Society in Central Africa: The BaKongo of 
Central Zaire (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1986), 63-89. 

forms of Legba, saying "Bon jour Liba, ouvert la porte; Ouvert la porte, Bon jour ma 
cousin; Bon jour ma cousin, Bon Jour Liba." 13 Two of the gods to whom Lebat opened 
the door included Monsieur Assonquer and Monsieur Agoussou, the gods of good fortune 
and love, respectively. Because of their respective functions, these two were particularly 
popular amongst believers. 14 

The survival of African gods in New Orleans was well known, but they also 
persisted in other places as well. In Missouri, the serpent god Da lived on in the form of 
Grandfather Rattlesnake, whom believers honored with dances. Florida's Nafiigo 
believers had a richer pantheon, drawn primarily from the gods of the Yoruba. Florida's 
blacks had no snake god, but they retained Obatala, chief of the Yoruban gods. Obatala 
was the most powerful spirit, and unlike Blanc Dani, this power made him the best god to 
call upon for the performance of spells. Elegba, a trickster and phallic god among the 
Yoruba people, became an evil god in America. For this reason, he was especially useful 
in the performance of evil magic. Shango, god of thunder, and Yemaya, goddess of air 
and water, were two other prominent gods to survive from Yoruba belief. Nanga, an evil 
spirit in Nanigo, appears to have been a rare Kongo contribution to the pantheon. In 
Kongo belief, Nanga was a legendary hero who led his people on a great migration to the 
present-day home of the Kongo people. In contrast to the Latin areas, the lesser gods had 

13 Pitkin, 195. Translated, the chant means, "Good day Liba, open the door; Open 
the door, Good day my cousin; Good day my cousin, Good day Liba." 

14 Long, Spiritual Merchants, 3-96; Cable, The Grandissimes, 99, 101, 135, 182, 
184, 257, 272, 311, 447, 453-456, 468; Pitkin, 185-213, 260-292; Courlander, A Treasury 
of African Folklore, 159-160, 187-188; Claude F. Jacobs and Andrew J. Kaslow, The 
Spiritual Churches of New Orleans: Origins, Beliefs, and Rituals of an African-American 
Religion (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991), 82-92. 


largely died out in the English-settled lands by the nineteenth century. Occasional 
sacrifices to bring good weather or prosperity and praying to rivers before baptisms were 
two rare exceptions to the rule. 15 

Table 1: African Gods in America 



Function in 






Latin Cultural 






Bon Dieu and 


Equivalent of 



Equivalent of 

other names 

Christian God, 


Fon, Ewe, 

Christian God, 

omnipotent and 

Nzambi and 


omnipotent and 



Kongo and 

omniscient, creator 





Chief god, 

Darih-gbi, Da 

Fon, Ewe 

Chief earth god, 

Danny, Blanc 


worshiped in 

python god, father 

Dani, Grand 


the form of a 

of gods, early ruler 


snake, god of 

of Dahomey 


discord, defeats 



Papa Lebat, 




Fon, Ewe 

Trickster, linguist of 

Liba, LaBas 





God of good 



Used in religious 



related to 

rituals to summon 



God of love 



Founder of the royal 


line of Abomey 





God of death 

Takes place of 




African gods 

15 A. B. Ellis, The Yoruba-Speaking Peoples of the Slave Coast of West Africa: 
Their Religion, Manners, Customs, Laws, Language, Etc. (Chicago: Benin Press, Ltd., 
1964), 34-124; Murphy, 7-36; Opoku, 54-90; MacGaffey, 53, 59, 79, Kennedy, "Nanigo 
in Florida," 153-156; Hauptmann, 197-200; Georgia Writer's Project, Savannah Unit, 
113,125,145, 160,167. 

Table 1. Continued 





Function in 

Latin Cultural 







identical with 

See above for 

See above 
for Danny 

See above for 



Child god 






Important god 
with many 
causing illness 




Yon Sue 


identical with 
Agoussou or 

See above for 
Agoussou or 

See above 

or Danny 

See above for 
Agoussou or Danny 

Joe Feraille 


God of iron 



God of iron and war 



Called on when 
gathering mud 



Moon god 



Supreme being 



Supreme Being 



Chief god, most 
powerful spirit 



Chief god 



Evil spirit 

Elegba and 


Trickster and 
phallic god 



Spirit of good 
and evil, 
justice, and 



God of thunder 



Spirit of the air 
and sea 



Goddess of the 
Ogun River, wife of 

Las Jimaguas 


Twin spirits 

Ibeji, Hoho, 
and others 

Ewe, and 

Twin gods 



Son of Abasi, 
identical to 

See above for 

See above 
for Elegba 

See above for 



Table 1. Continued 



Function in 

Latin Cultural 










Unidentified Unidentified Unidentified 





related to 





SOURCES: Compiled from Long, Spiritual Merchants, 3-96; Cable, The Grandissimes, 99, 101, 135, 182, 
184, 257, 272, 311, 447, 453-456, 468; Pitkin, 185-213, 260-292; Mary Owen, "Among the Voodoos," 
238-242; Cable, "Creole Slave Songs," 807-828; Cable, "The Dance in Place Congo," 517-532; 
Courlander, A Treasury of African Folklore, 159-160, 187-188; Jacobs and Kaslow, 82-92; A. B. Ellis, The 
Ewe-Speaking Peoples of the Slave Coast of West Africa: Their Religion, Manners, Customs, Laws, 
Languages, &c (London: Chapman and Hall, 1890), 13-90; Ellis, The Yoruba-Speaking Peoples, 34-124; 
Murphy, 77; Brandon, Santeria; Opoku, 54-90; MacGaffey, 53, 59, 79; Metraux, 28, 31, 100-119; Rigaud, 
51-78; Kennedy, "Nafligo in Florida," 153-156; Hauptmann, 197-200. 

Though the combined lesser gods/magical helpers were the most readily 
recognizable survivals of African religions, did not occupy the only tier of the spiritual 
hierarchy to persist in the American South. Blacks also brought their conceptions of the 
supreme being as they entered lives of servitude. In the Latin area, the all-powerful Bon 
Dieu of New Orleans Voodoo filled the role of Mawu-Lisa of the Fon and Ewe. The 
absence of sacrifices and magic in the worship of Bon Dieu, illustrates the general 
African view of the supreme being as too lofty to need anything humans could offer. For 
the same reason, Bon Dieu was above helping his followers with magic. In Florida, 
Abasi, the Americanized version of Ubasi, the Yoruba supreme deity, likewise held sway 
over the universe. It was his son, Obatala, who helped conjurers in their magic. 16 

16 Ellis, The Yoruba-Speaking Peoples, 34-124; Opoku, 54-90; MacGaffey, 53, 59, 
79, Kennedy, "Nanigo in Florida," 153-156; Hauptmann, 197-200. 

In Missouri and throughout the Anglo cultural zone, the supreme being was the 
Christian God. While casual examiners might conclude the absence of an overtly African 
name signaled another casualty of enslavement, such was not the case. On the contrary, 
many of the West Central Africans who made up the largest group of the imports to the 
Anglo area and a significant proportion of those in the Latin area had a Christian heritage 
in their homeland. Most notably, the Portuguese brought Christianity to the Kingdom of 
the Kongo in 1491. The new faith spread rapidly, and converts included the king, royal 
family, and many nobles by the early sixteenth century. Alfonso I, who ascended to the 
kingship of the Kongo in 1506, even attempted to create a Christian state modeled on the 
monarchies of Western Europe. Successive rulers followed his lead, though their dream 
never came to fruition. By the mid sixteenth century, the Portuguese had discovered the 
profitability of slave trading. To obtain captives, the Portuguese encouraged warfare 
among the various regions of the Kingdom of the Kongo and with other groups. After 
restraining themselves for a century, the kingdom finally declared war on the Portuguese, 
only to be dealt a death blow. By the late seventeenth century, Christianity had largely 
disappeared. Nevertheless, the model of a one-God religion was in place. Christianity 
had, in effect, become a traditional African religion, with which slaves from West Central 
African already had experience, particularly in the colonial period. 17 

Just as important to African- Americans' conception of God were the attributes 
that they assigned to Him. Blacks who called on God for help in magic, as did King 
Alexander of Missouri and a host of other conjurers in the Anglo area, were not following 

17 Roland Oliver and J. D. Fage, A Short History of Africa, 6 th ed. (London: 
Penguin Group, 1988), 106-109; Joseph E. Harris, Africans and Their History, Revised 
ed. (New York: Penguin Group, 1987), 135-138. 

the biblical teachings of orthodox Christianity, which is clear in its condemnation of the 
practice of divination and magic. Neither were they relying on a purely African 
worldview, in which God was too lofty to respond to the spells and charms of a mortal 
sorcerer. On the contrary, the God of nineteenth-century black hoodooists was, like the 
lesser gods of Voodoo, a Creole combination of more than one tier of African spiritual 
hierarchies. In the Anglo zone and Missouri, God was a magical helper who aided 
conjurers in their profession, an embodiment of the attributes of the lesser gods of Africa, 
and an omnipotent and omniscient being who was far above needing anything from his 
followers. 18 

This neither African nor European view of God was obvious in the practice of 
William Adams of Texas. While Adams clearly believed in the Christian idea of God as 
an almighty creator of all, he claimed a special relationship with Him, much as Zora 
Neale Hurston reported that she had a uniquely close relationship to the Great One, 
apparently a title for the Voodoo god Blanc Dani. Also, Adams' God fulfilled the role of 
a magical helper through acts of revelation, during which He showed the conjurer how to 
exercise his powers. Adams was far from unique. Seven Sisters of Alabama worked 
within a similar conception of God. Asked by an interviewer to explain how she learned 
to conjure, she simply stated that a spirit from the "Lord Jesus Christ" taught her. While 
receiving her power from Jesus, her manner of referring to Him as "Lord" indicates her 
conception of his lofty standing. Nevertheless, Seven Sisters claimed that God acted in 
accordance with her spells, much like the Voodoo gods of New Orleans responded to the 

l8 Owen, "Among the Voodoos," 232-233; Hurston, "Hoodoo in America," 357- 

offerings of their followers. Clearly, Seven Sisters' ideas were not wholly African. On 
the other hand, she relied on a God who did not fit well within orthodox Christianity. 
While she claimed to trick "in the name o' the Lord," her spells included ones intended to 
win the sexual favors of women, give rivals bad luck, and kill women who had ensnared 
lovers by magic, all of which violated biblical teachings. 19 

Two other tiers of the West African spiritual hierarchy, ancestral and totemic 
animal and plant spirits, showed less persistence in the American South. The latter were 
virtually unknown, with their only representatives being taboos against eating certain 
animals by Anglo-area blacks and the animal names adopted by the likes of Dr. Buzzard. 
Ghosts, grave goods, and wakes were common throughout both the Anglo and Latin 
areas. Nevertheless, ancestral spirits occupied only a shadow of the position they had 
held in Africa. As far as conjure went, the ancestor's chief representative in the 
nineteenth century was the Kongo-derived goopher of the Anglo zone. Graveyard dirt 
was the most popular material for charms in the Anglo area, particularly along the 
Atlantic seaboard. 20 Goopher dust had a variety of uses, ranging from helping slaves 
escape their owners to aiding accused murderers in their trials. It could also be used to 
harm, frequently appearing in malevolent charms designed to cause sickness or death, 
powders to dissuade rivals in love, and even poisons to taint food and wells. 
Furthermore, conjurers chose the graves from which to take goopher dust based on what 

"Adams, Rawick, ed., supplement 2, vol. 2, 16-22; Carmer, 218. 

20 Bones were another, less common, conjure material associated with the dead. 
For example, during the excavation of an Indian Mound on Georgia's Savannah River, 
black laborers collected the metacarpal bones from the skeletons they unearthed, 
believing that they would protect them from conjure. See Steiner, "Observations on the 
Practice of Conjuring in Georgia," 178. 

it was to be used for. For instance, to save the life of accused murderers, friends of the 
prisoner would gather dirt from the grave of the murdered man, leaving three pennies in 
payment. The dead person, who had the best knowledge of the crime, could exonerate the 
wrongly accused. Even if the accused had committed the crime, the spirit might be 
persuaded by magic or payment to aid the guilty. In general, for malevolent work, the 
grave should be that of an evil person, but to perform good magic, the goopher dust 
should be obtained from the grave of a child or good person. 21 

The best represented tiers of the African supernatural hierarchy were those 
occupying charms. The Mande-speakers who contributed the term, "gris-gris," were 
particularly influential in the Latin area. According to the eighteenth-century slave trader 
Nicholas Owen, the Mandingos' "gregory bags" were large leather pouches in which they 
carried religious items, including what European travelers were fond of referring to as 
"idols." Gregory bags' chief purpose, however, was protection from harm, thereby 
requiring their owners to carry them always. In the American South, these pouches 
shrank in size and formed only one of the many forms of gris-gris present in the Latin 
zone, but they continued to exist. The best examples of them were preserved in Missouri, 
where some African- Americans carried linen bags containing luck balls. These luck 
balls, however, did more than communicate luck in the European sense. They also 
embodied the souls of their possessors. Their proprietors carried them always, fed them, 
and spoke to them, calling them by their own names. The loss of one was a dreadful 

2 'J. W. Bendenbaugh, "Folk-Lore and Ethnology: A Contribution from South 
Carolina," Southern Workman 23 (1894): 46; Georgia Writers' Project, Savannah Unit, 
Drums and Shadows, 36, 42, 44, 75, 84, 93- 94, 102, 125; Steiner, "Observations on the 
Practice of Conjuring in Georgia," 173-180; Long, Spiritual Merchants, 91. 

occurrence, frequently sending its owner into a panic. The power of luck balls was 
illustrated by the words of King Alexander, who called on God to empower one such 
charm for Charles Leland, saying, "May this ball bring all good luck to Charles Leland. 
May it bind down all devils, may it bind down his enemies before him, may it bring them 
under his feet." 22 He went on to exhort God to imbue it with the power to bring friends, 
honor, riches, happiness, success, and his "heart's desire." The physical portion of the 
luck ball was composed of knotted white yarn and silk thread, red clover blossoms, 
tinfoil, and dust. He imparted some of his own spirit to it by spitting on it. Then, he 
named the ball "Charles Leland." For the spirit to remain strong, the human Leland 
would have to continue to feed it with whiskey. 23 

The origin of Latin-area charms cannot be solely assigned to Mande gregory bags. 
Instead, they are a mixture of the beliefs of successive waves of imports into the area. 
Like American blacks, African peoples had a large variety of amulets and charms, whose 
indwelling spirits followed the rules of sympathy and contagion as expressed in their 
material composition. Among Fon speakers, these were called "gbo," and took the form 
of soaps, packets or bottles filled with mixtures of magical materials, rings, and numerous 
other items. They had a variety of uses, ranging from protection of crops when tied to 
trees near fields to binding evil spirits when incorporating elements of knotting. In 
addition, these were usually "fed" with some form of alcohol, blood, or food, 
accomplished by soaking or covering the bundle with them. The influence of West 

22 Mary Owen, "Among the Voodoos," 232. 

"Nicholas Owen, Journal of a Slave Dealer, 50-5 1 ; Mary Owen, "Among the 
Voodoos," 232-233; Mary Owen, Voodoo Tales, 169-189. 

African gbo-style charms is clear in the materials of the American South. Like their 
African counterparts, they often had specialized functions, designed to bring luck, love, 
financial success, and virtually any other desire. Moreover, they frequently required 
feeding, usually of a form of alcoholic beverages. In addition, while packets were the 
most common of African- American charms, there were others, including powders and 
special bathing mixtures, both of which also appeared in Africa. Henry Bibb, for 
example, once relied on a powder when seeking to avoid punishment from his master. 
Ewe priests and magicians used similar powders to force open locked doors, cause and 
heal madness, and blind enemies. Even gregory bag-style charms incorporated elements 
of gbo. King Alexander's charm used knotting as a way to bind evil spirits, but he also 
specified that his luck ball's outer binding not be tied on to prevent tying up the charm's 
indwelling spirit. Similarly, he specified that it required feeding to remain strong. 24 

One of the most influential forms of African charms, however, were the "minkisi" 
(singular "nkisi") of the Kongo. Manufactured by magicians, minkisi were positive 
beings inhabiting charms designed to protect their owners from spirit-induced illness. 
Like gregory bags, gbo, and related northern West African charms, they frequently took 
the shape of packets. 25 Unlike those of other areas, however, minkisi often incorporated 
the spirits of the ancestors in the form of dirt from graveyards, a material identical to the 
goopher dust of the Anglo zone. The pervasiveness of goopher dust alone speaks to the 

24 Long, Spiritual Merchants, 6-8; Suzanne Preston Blier, "Vodun: West African 
Roots of Vodou," in Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou, ed. Donald L. Cosentino (Los 
Angeles: University of California Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1995), 73-76; 
Bibb, 25-32; Ellis, The Ewe-Speaking Peoples, 94; Ellis, The Yoruba-Speaking Peoples, 


Voodoo dolls likewise had precedents in the West Central Africa. 

power of Kongo ancestry in the Anglo area, though unlike in the Kongo, American 
graveyard dust was as often used for evil as for good. For example, Roland Steiner, a 
Georgia observer, recorded the use of graveyard dust in charms designed to cause disease 
and kill, drive away enemies, and conjure wells. Steiner met one goopher doctor, named 
Tom Franklin, who had a reputation for working all of his magic by the use of graveyard 
dust. The more limited use of graveyard dust in the Latin area also bespoke the influence 
of minkisi. Other common forms of minkisi were roots, which likewise appeared in both 
cultural zones. According to Kongo belief, the first nkisi was the spirit Funza, who dwelt 
in twisted roots. John the Conqueror root, common throughout the nineteenth-century 
South, was the American derivation of the African Funza. Kongos chewed and spat 
another kind of root, called "disisa" or "nsanga-lavu," in order to drive off enemies and 
evil forces. This roughly corresponded to the chewing roots employed by African- 
Americans. For instance, Henry Bibb chewed a root and spat its juice toward his master 
to prevent being punished. In later days, such roots would be known as "Chewing John," 
the most commonly used species of which was galangal, a member of the ginger family, 
as were the Kongo disisa or nsanga-lavu. 26 

Minkisi were but the benevolent side of Kongo magic. Alongside positive magic 
existed the evils of witchcraft. A common means by which witches harmed their victims 
was by stealing their souls and imprisoning them inside a bottle. Similar practices 
persisted in conjure. Stopping bowels by sealing someone's excrement in a tree was one 

26 Thompson, Flash of the Spirit, 117-131; Robert Farris Thompson, Face of the 
Gods: Art and Altars of Africa and the African Americas (New York: The Museum of 
African Art, 1993), 47-107; Steiner, "Observations on the Practice of Conjuring in 
Georgia," 173-180; Long, Spiritual Merchants, 6-8, 102; Bibb, 25-32. 

derivation of such Kongo witchcraft. Another was the practice of placing materials 
representing particular people, such as names or fingernails, in bottles or packets, which 
were then thrown in running water, buried in graves, turned upside down, or similarly 
manipulated in order to cause death. 27 

Other aims of African- American charms and spells had their origins across the 
Atlantic. A black teacher who attended the Hampton Institute reported that as a teenager, 
she had felt the effects of a "crazy spell," that had caused her to contemplate suicide and 
violence to others. To heal her, her mother took her to a root doctor. After a few days of 
taking a mixture of water and a mysterious liquid, she recovered. Such cases were well 
known in Africa, where evil magicians frequently and literally drove enemies mad. 
Among the Ewe, they did so by throwing specially-prepared powder on their enemies' 
footprints. The most feared maladies inflicted by nineteenth-century hoodooists, animal 
infestations of human bodies, also originated in Africa. Throughout West Africa, witches 
were feared for their ability to harm others, by placing both animate and inanimate items 
within their victims. According to the nineteenth-century traveler, Mary Kingsley, this 
practice was particularly common among the Ibo and those speaking languages of the 
Bantu group, including the Kongo people. She reported on examples of bodies infested 
with pieces of iron pots, bundles of palm leaves, and millipedes. An account she heard of 
from two "very trustworthy" male witnesses impressed her more than the others. One of 
the men's mutual relatives had been bewitched. Following the administration of an 
emetic, a small animal emerged from the afflicted's body and grew rapidly in size. 

27 MacGaffey, 162; Bacon, 210; Hyatt, Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft-Rootwork, 
5-6, 2618; Steiner, "Observations on the Practice of Conjuring in Georgia," 179. 

According to the men, it had the body of a lizard and wings like a bat. An hour after the 
reptile came to light, it flew away. Those present concluded that a witch had hidden the 
creature in some food, which the victim had eaten. Had it not been treated, it would have 
continued to grow, eating away its host's body until he died. 28 

In many cases, even the items used to make up the various forms of African 
charms survived in America. For example, throughout the South, cross marks (X) were 
powerful protective symbols. Derived from a cruciform Kongo symbol for the cosmos 
and continuity of life, they sometimes adorned African-American graves. In New 
Orleans, Voodooists drew similar marks on the tomb of Marie Laveau as a petition for 
her aid. In central Georgia, blacks drew cross marks in the earth and spat on them to 
avert bad luck. When drawn in a path, anyone traveling it would either have to see it 
beforehand and walk around it or be cursed, making them an excellent way to dissuade 
trespassers and enemies. Hoodoo rituals performed at crossroads hearken back to the 
same source. Red flannel, one of the favorite materials used in making conjure bags and 
other charms, likewise derived from African sources. Among the Kongo peoples, red 
represented blood, birth, death, sunrise, and sunset, making it a powerful color for its 
sympathetic value. Among the Fon, charms were usually red, a favorite color of the 
spirits. 29 


'Folk-Lore and Ethnology" 28 (1899): 314-315; Hyatt, Hoodoo-Conjuration- 
Witchcraft-Rootwork, 5-6; Ellis, The Ewe-Speaking Peoples, 94; Mary Kingsley, Travels 
in West Africa: Congo Francois, Corisco and Cameroons, 5 th ed., with an Introduction by 
Elizabeth Claridge (London: Virago Press, 1982), 470-471. 


Thompson, Flash of the Spirit, 108-1 16; Thompson, Face of the Gods, 49-50; 
Tallant, Voodoo in New Orleans, 129; Steiner, "Superstitions and Beliefs from Central 
Georgia," 262; Gomez, 204-206; MacGaffey, 52; Puckett, Folk Beliefs, 220-221, 290- 

Another material often used in African- American magic were footprints. Once 
again, the practice arose in blacks' ancestral home. In West Africa, treating footprints 
with magical materials could affect those who made them. For instance, placing thorns in 
the impression made by the foot injured their maker as they would have had he or she 
stepped on them. Dirt from foot tracks could be incorporated into charms for similar 
ends. Animal and plant products used in hoodoo most likely sprang from African roots. 
Red pepper, a common protective charm in the United States, served the same role in 
West Africa. Black cat bones, thought to give invisibility to their possessors, also sprang 
from the same origins. One of the clearest examples of African magic surviving in the 
American South were the protective powers of chickens. Newbell Niles Puckett 
proclaimed that a frizzly rooster was "veritable hoodoo watchdog" in the eyes of black 
Americans, capable of scratching up any hidden malevolent conjures. In the Old World, 
they could do the same. Moreover, chickens conferred luck when eaten and could even 
destroy evil magic when they encountered it. In some areas, they could even prevent fires 
in villages. 30 

In Africa, a variety of human specialists dealt with the spirit world. Among the 
Kongo, for example, village chiefs and elders were both governmental leaders and priests, 
communicating with and conducting worship of the ancestors. Localized spirits, 
however, were the provenance of priests. Chiefs, elders, and priests were public figures, 
but two types of private specialists also existed. The first were magicians who made 
benevolent charms for sale to clients. The second type, witches, were evil. Instead of 

30 Kingsley, 446, 469; Opoku, 148; Georgia Writers' Project, Savannah Unit, 
Drums and Shadows, 43, 61, 200, 206; Puckett, Folk Beliefs, 220, 290-291; Long, 
Spiritual Merchants, 15. 

helping others, they stole victims' souls, metaphysically "eating" those unfortunate 
enough to encounter them. They dealt chiefly with ghosts, the unhappy spirits of dead 
witches. Moreover, witches had no need to use charms themselves, though they might 
sell them to clients. In northern West Africa, similar divisions of function occurred. 
Among many peoples, tribal and village leaders such as chiefs and elders retained their 
spiritual roles. Among the Akan people, for instance, chiefs led the worship of national 
gods and ancestors, a common feature of northern West African cultures. Priests, like 
those of the Kongo, usually devoted themselves to particular lesser gods. Also, these 
societies recognized the existence of both good and evil magic, practiced by magicians or 
sorcerers and witches, respectively. Once again, witches preyed on the souls and property 
of humans, having no need of magical formulas or charms. Moreover, they could fly, 
take on the form of animals, become invisible, and "ride" their victims while they slept, 
gradually wearing them down in body and spirit. The Yoruba, Fon, and other groups had 
a fifth type of specialist who performed divination. Some peoples had yet another 
category, typically known as a "witch doctor" or "witch hunter," whose sole purpose was 
to hunt down and destroy witches. Witch hunting was particularly popular in Ghana but 
eventually spread throughout much of the region. Though restrictions on the professions 
varied from society to society, these specialists could usually be either male or female, 
with the exception of chiefs, who were almost always men. 31 

31 MacGaffey, 160-165; Opoku, 11-13, 74-91, 140-151; Geoffrey Parrinder, West 
African Religion: A Study of the Beliefs and Practices of Akan, Ewe, Yoruba, Ibo, and 
Kindred Peoples, 2 nd ed., with a Foreword by Edwin Smith (London: Epworth Press, 
1961), 137-171. 

As was true with the tiers of African religious hierarchies, the categories of 
spiritual experts merged in the American South, but elements of each survived. For 
instance, both men and women could serve as magical and religious specialists. 
Moreover, in some places, vestiges of the originally distinct roles of chiefs, elders, 
priests, magicians, witches, diviners, and witch hunters persisted. For example, Anglo- 
zone African- Americans sometimes thought of witches, usually known as hags, as 
separate from conjurers. Hags, like the witches of Africa, entered victims' homes under 
the- cloak of invisibility, riding them during their sleep. The results were nightmares. In 
addition, they could change their forms, slipping out of their skin to appear as animals. 
Conjurers, meanwhile, usually combined the roles of diviners, magicians, and witch 
hunters. As such, they told the future, provided magical charms to their clients, and 
helped victims of hag-craft overcome their tormenters. This distinction did not always 
hold, though. Unlike the divinatory and magical specialists of Africa, conjurers were 
widely feared for their ability to work evil. For instance, South Carolina's Dr. Buzzard 
sold both positive and negative charms to his clients. The same was true of most 
nineteenth-century conjurers in both areas. Even when a hoodooist eschewed evil work 
on moral grounds, public opinion continued to paint him or her as a dangerous individual 
who should be feared. Whatever the relation between hags and conjurers, African chiefs, 
elders, and priests largely disappeared in the Anglo South, with black preachers providing 
the closest approximation of their functions in religious worship. In the Latin area, where 
workers of magic also officiated over worship of African gods, the functions of chiefs, 
elders, and priests survived in the conglomerate office of Voodoo queens, kings, and 

doctors. Ironically, while more of the roles of African specialists survived in the Latin 
zone, they might all be manifested in a single individual. 32 

All living humans were also spiritual beings, regardless of their status as 
specialists. According to almost all African cultures, individuals were composed of 
multiple physical and nonphysical portions. In northern West Africa, in particular, the 
concept of multiple "souls" was strong. Among the Yoruba, human beings were 
primarily spiritual in makeup. Closely tied to the mortal body, or "ara," was the "ojiji," 
the shadow, which accompanied the body in life and ceased to exist upon death. In 
contrast, the "emi" gave life to the body and returned to God upon physical death, but 
never itself died. The "okan," or "heart," was the center of thought and action. Like the 
emi, the okan never died. Instead, it was reincarnated in the bodies of its physical 
descendants. Less closely tied to the physical body than other segments of a human, the 
okan often wandered during sleep, exposing it to attacks from other okan, particularly 
those of witches. The "ori" was similar to the okan in that it pre-existed the physical 
body with which it joined, but it did not undergo the process of reincarnation as did the 
okan. An ori was the most important part of an individual's personality and also acted as 
the guardian of the rest of a human's being. The final part of a human in Yoruba belief 
was the "iye," or "mental body," which was the conscious part of a person. Together the 
ara, ojiji, emi, okan, ori, and iye worked together to create a unified being. The Kongo 
people also held that humans had a multi-segmented spiritual existence. In addition to a 
physical body, the invisible part of a human was composed of a "life soul," which gave 


'Folk-Lore and Ethnology: Hags and Their Ways," Southern Workman 23 
(1892): 26-27; McTeer, Low Country Witch Doctor, 21-30; Buel, 516-542; Pitkin, 185- 

vitality to the body; a "body soul," acting as a person's eternal social identity; an "image 
soul," which was ones mortal shadow or appearance; and a "death spirit." From the last 
category sprang the inhabitants of the spirit world with whom the living communicated, 
including as ancestors, ghosts, nature spirits, and inhabitants of charms. 33 

To be sure, the full complexity of African conceptions of human composition did 
not survive the crossing of the Atlantic. Nevertheless, conjurers, the most important 
representative of African survivals in America, sometimes held that multiple souls were 
part of what made them powerful magicians. One of the Mississippi conjurers 
interviewed by Ruth Bass, Divinity, believed that he had been marked as a conjurer from 
birth, as evidenced by his being born with a caul. The caul itself, however, was but a 
sign, indicating that he was a "double-sighter" with two spirits. One spirit remained in 
the body, but the other, like the okan of Yoruba belief, wandered about, allowing Divinity 
to see and talk to spiritual beings hidden from those not so gifted. In Georgia, Braziel 
Robinson also claimed to have two souls. Like Divinity, he said the reason for this 
unusual circumstance came from his being born with a caul. Another similarity between 
Robinson and Divinity was that one of his spirits usually stayed put, while the other left 
the body. Once again, these two spirits caused their possessor to be able to see and 
communicate with spirits. In Robinson's experience, the spirits tended to be those of 
dead humans, linking his wandering spirit to the "death spirits" of the Kongo and other 
African peoples. One variation from African belief was that Robinson's two souls 


Opoku, 91-100; MacGaffey, 135-136. 

worked together to protect him from evil, as would the Yoruban ori. If he refused to 
listen to their guidance, both would desert him. Two evil spirits would take their place. 34 
Another important aspect of African culture, were the so-called "secret societies" 
which served as combination religious, social, cultural, and governmental organizations. 
Though secrecy surrounded some aspects of these groups, they were much more than the 
term "secret societies" implies. Instead, they served a variety of functions, including 
providing moral regulation, care for the needy, diplomacy and trade between villages and 
tribes, and education for both men and women. For instance, among the Mande and 
related peoples of northern West Africa, the Poro and Sande societies filled such roles. 35 
The Poro and Sande organizations, for men and women, respectively, were open to all 
members of the society. Moreover, one who did not enter a society upon puberty usually 
became a target of ostracism. After joining the societies through a complex initiation, 
members could advance within a pyramidal structure through a succession of further 
ceremonies. In addition to regulating life on a local level, the Mande's wide-ranging Poro 
and Sande societies also helped forge cultural and political unity from the many dispersed 
villages that made up the territories occupied by the Mande ethnic group. Other peoples 
had similar societies. For instance, the Krobo people of modern-day Ghana had the Dipo 
society, which females joined upon entering womanhood. 36 

34 Bass, "Mojo," 88-89; Steiner, "Braziel Robinson," 226-228. 

35 These two societies eventually spread beyond the Mande, gaining a presence 
among many West African groups. 

36 Gomez, 94-102. 

In the American South, African men and women's societies truly became secret 
organizations, hiding many of their practices, and sometimes even existence, from 
outsiders. They also largely abandoned their roles in economics and politics, becoming 
wholly religious and magical in purpose. As a result, evidence for the survival of African 
organizations in the South is sparse. What data exists, though, is convincing. Scattered 
references to sects involving "sacred spirits" argue in favor of the minor presence of 
African-derived societies in the Anglo area. As with other aspects of African life, 
however, they were much more common in the Latin area. They were most easily 
recognizable in Florida, where the word "Nanigo" preserved the Cuban name for a 
society originally founded by the Efik people of the Niger River delta. In the United 
States, members of the Nanigo society/religion continued to practice traditional dances, 
parades, and other rituals well into the twentieth century. A few even remembered the 
society's African name, Carabali Apapa Abacua. Each of the three words had a meaning 
referring to the origin and function of the organization. "Carabali," a Cuban synonym for 
"Efik," referred to its cultural origin, while "Apapa" meant something "old" or "great." 
The last word, "Abacua," meant "pledge." In short, the name roughly translated as 
"Pledge of the Old Efik." African societies existed in Missouri and Louisiana as well, 
though they were generally confined to practitioners of magic and less clearly defined as 
in the former Spanish colony. In Missouri, conjurers formed the confederation known as 
"the Circle," entered through the lengthy process of initiation and apprenticeship. 
Louisiana's hoodooists seem to have formed similar associations, as evidenced by the 
secretive initiations and apprenticeships undergone by Zora Neale Hurston in the early 

twentieth century. The covert nature of Voodoo's rituals indicates that its members may 
have seen themselves as members of some form of hidden organization. 37 

The initiations into secret societies undergone by Latin-area hoodooists further 
emphasized their African origin. Zora Neale Hurston's initiation at the hands of Samuel 
Thompson, though designed primarily to give her the power to conjure, appears to have 
been a pared-down blend of the rituals of African societies. 38 As with Hurston, 
prospective members of the Mande's Sande and Krobo's Dipo societies lived in 
seclusion, having contact only with society officials for the bulk of the initiation. 
Moreover, during this period both Hurston and the African novitiates were to keep 
themselves pure in mind and body and pay a fee to officiants. In addition, both the 
American and African initiations included a time during which those who hoped to enter 
the societies' ranks underwent a period of training. Among the Mande and Krobo, they 
learned about topics as diverse as motherhood, respect for elders, physiology, and first 
aid, but in New Orleans, Hurston learned only about magic. Both the African societies 
and Thompson's Voodoo initiation employed ritual clothing to signify the women's new 
state. Other elements were specific to one or the other African society. Specifically 
Krobo elements, though, were more prevalent than Mande ones. For example, one of the 
most important acts undertaken by Dipo initiates was the sacrifice of a goat. In Hurston's 
case, a sheep took its place, though the sacrifice remained. Also, both Hurston and her 
Krobo counterparts partook of communal feasts. Ritual cleansings followed by paintings 

"Gomez, 99-102; Murphy, 32-35; Kennedy, "Nanigo in Florida," 153-156; 
Hauptmann, 197-200; ; Cappick, 9 May 1958, 7; 16 May 1958, 7; Mary Owen, "Among 
the Voodoos," 23 1 ; Hurston, "Hoodoo in America." 


An account of Hurston's initiation appears in the previous chapter. 

on initiates' bodies by those officiating likewise appeared in the rituals of the Dipo 
society and Thompson. One of the last acts of both rituals was the "crowning" of the 
women with a specially-made hat, originally intended to imitate Krobo priests' 
ceremonial headwear. 39 Initiations in other parts of the Latin area likewise shared 
elements of African societies. For instance, initiates into the Sande society, and its male 
counterpart, the Poro, took new names, a practice that Hurston encountered in other 
initiations. The custom was typical in Missouri conjure. Similarly, Missouri hoodooists 
learned dances as well as magic, a common feature in African men and women's 
societies. Also, in both Missouri and Louisiana, the initiations took on aspects of African 
priestly initiations, as evidenced by the novitiates' special relationship with particular 
gods or spirits. 40 

Despite the similarities between Mande and Krobo initiations and those of the 
American South, many features of the rituals did not survive. Most notably, a man 
conducted Hurston's initiation, which would not have happened in Krobo or Mande 
lands. Also, particular items and sacred locations had disappeared by the time Hurston 
underwent her induction into Voodoo. Krobo women, for instance, had to climb a sacred 
rock, called the Totroku before they could enter womanhood, an aspect of the ceremonies 
which had no part in the practices of the American South. Elephant hairs, with which 
Dipo initiates adorned their heads at the close of the initiations, shared a similar fate. 
Despite notable losses, however, these rituals remained largely African in form and 

39 0ther aspects of the initiation, such as the wearing of new clothes, appeared in 
both priestly and men and women's society initiations. See Opoku, 75-90. 

40 Hurston, "Hoodoo in America," 357-360; Opoku, 1 12-123; Mary Owen, 
"Among the Voodoos," 231-238. 

function. Rather than degrading over time, they adapted to new circumstances, surviving 
for more than a century after the close of the international slave trade. 41 

African-derived initiations were one way for prospective conjurers to gain their 
powers, but Africa also provided the blueprint for those who gained it by other means. 
Throughout northern West Africa and the Kongo, priests and witches often acquired their 
abilities from parents, particularly mothers. Among the Tiv of Nigeria, for instance, 
magic was understood as a substance which grew in witches' livers, making it possible to 
pass it to children. In other instances, gods or spirits gifted those who they wanted to 
serve them. For example, among the Fon, distinctive appearances, resulting from the 
likes of albinism, deformities, and melanism, indicated such gifts. Similarly, twins, 
infants delivered by breach births, and children born immediately after the death of 
siblings were often destined for spiritual careers based on unusual birth. Moreover, most 
West African priests and priestesses received some form of call, usually indicated by 
possession by the being they were to serve. As in the American South, such gifting was 
not always welcome to the receiver. Evil spirits were most apt to make victims of those 
they chose. According to Kofi Asare Opoku, demons sometimes forced people into 
witchcraft, "coercing them, even against their will, into casting evil on their neighbors." 42 
These same evil spirits could also be called on to grant the power of witchcraft, the 
African equivalent of the black American practice of selling ones soul to Satan. 
Furthermore, African workers of magic underwent a process of learning. For members of 
the priesthood and sorcerers, the learning took place during initiations into their craft and 

41 Hurston, "Hoodoo in America," 357-360; Opoku, 112-123. 
42 Opoku, 144. 

periods of apprenticeship, during which they would learn herbal magic, sacred dances, 
taboos, and other aspects of their religion and magic. Witches had no need to learn how 
to perform magic, as was sometimes the case in the American South. They harmed the 
souls of their victims with their own souls. 43 

Nineteenth-century blacks' shared much with their African ancestors. Spiritual 
hierarchies, concepts of magical specialization and human spiritual makeup, and methods 
of gaining occult power demonstrate the truth of this assertion in respect to conjure. 
While much of African- Americans' religious heritage was destroyed by the hardship 
inherent in slavery and by many blacks' willing conversion to Christianity, it retained a 
vital niche in their folk beliefs. Nevertheless, when old beliefs and customs disappeared, 
new traditions took their place. These innovations came not from Africa but from those 
peoples blacks encountered in their new homeland. 

43 0puku, 75-90, 140-151; Parrinder, 156-171; Hurston, "Hoodoo in America," 
357-360, 390-391; Hyatt, Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft-Rootwork, 97-1 11; Blier, 65. 




Most Americans, particularly whites, learn what they know of African- American 
magical practices from television documentaries and print sources aimed at popular 
readerships. One recent documentary on Voodoo, entitled "The Evil Eye," appeared on 
the television program "History's Mysteries." As with most recent productions of the 
sort, its central argument was that Voodoo was and is a valid religion, free from the 
demonic characteristics ascribed to it in popular belief. To this end, it stressed Voodoo's 
African roots, arguing that the vilification of the religion in past ages was a result of racist 
assumptions. Other potential influences were summed up in a statement that Voodoo had 
been "enriched by contact with Catholicism." 1 

Most recent books on conjure have followed the same formulation as the 
television programs. A. P. Antippas' A Brief History of Voodoo: Slavery & the Survival 
of the African Gods is one such example. As its title suggests, this short book, published 
by a popular New Orleans tourist shop, emphasizes the role of African beliefs in Voodoo 
and conjure. As with "The Evil Eye," the book dismisses non-African influences with no 
more than brief acknowledgments that Catholic saints helped preserve the old gods and 
that Protestant worship styles reminded slaves of their traditional religious ceremonies. 
This presentation of conjure makes it appear to be an intact African religion. Thus, 

'Bram Rods, executive producer, "History's Mysteries: The Evil Eye" (Film Roos, 
Inc., 1999). 


contributions from other cultures seem minimal or nonexistent. In a time when New Age 

rejection of Western religion, pluralistic assertions of equality among faiths, and black 

cultural nationalism are central forces shaping interpretations of hoodoo, such an 

approach in popular media is to be expected. 2 

Unfortunately for the study of hoodoo, the paucity of scholarly works on the 
subject has left the popular interpretation of conjure largely unchallenged. Without 
doubt, nineteenth-century blacks built conjure upon an African foundation. The structure 
which they raised, however, incorporated elements from cultures far from their ancestral 
homeland. European and American Indian elements were as important in the practice of 
conjure as those originating in Africa. Moreover, conjure served as a microcosm of the 
African- American experience, demonstrating immigrant African origins coupled with an 
essentially American experience of assimilation of cultural differences. 

In New Orleans, Voodoo survived as a religion in its own right, but in the Anglo 
South, Christianity succeeded in erasing large-scale adherence to the older faiths. Even in 
the case of conjurers, it required accommodation to a monotheistic worldview, 
accounting for the gradual disappearance of full-fledged African religions. At the same 
time, contact with Europeans was far from simply a destructive force when it came to 
hoodoo. On the contrary, European contributions to nineteenth-century conjure rivaled 
those which survived from African. Though black Christians owed allegiance to a God 
distinct from those revered by their ancestors, they often felt no need to abandon their 
magical practices. European influence affected hoodoo in three distinct ways: erosion of 

2 A. P. Antippas, A Brief History of Voodoo: Slavery & the Survival of the African 
Gods (New Orleans: Marie Laveau's House of Voodoo, 1988) 

African practices, reinforcement of African customs, and introduction of new ideas and 

Most sources, popular and scholarly, are quick to point out the negative impact of 
European dominance on the survival of African beliefs. To white slaveholders, Voodoo 
and conjure were at best offensive relics of paganism. At worst, they could become 
rallying points for slave rebellions. The result was often legal action. During the 
eighteenth century, governors of Louisiana banned slave imports from Martinique and 
Santo Domingo because of their predilection for Voodoo. Gris-gris practiced against 
whites could lead to imprisonment, as occurred in the case of Carlos, who died in prison 
after having planned to use magic to kill his master, Francisco Bellile. Suppression of 
Voodoo and its related magical practices continued up to and beyond the Civil War, 
during which New Orleans authorities frequently broke up gatherings, fined believers, 
and arrested leaders. Outside New Orleans, conjure was likewise an object of attack to 
the degree that blacks hid its practice from whites. Even after emancipation, African- 
Americans did not possess true spiritual freedom, with open practice of African religions 
being suppressed by force in at least one South Carolina case. By the late nineteenth- 
century, white efforts to eliminate conjure had so stigmatized its practice that educated 
members of both races saw its survival as a major failing of the African- American people. 
An editor of the Southern Workman went so far as to proclaim that accounts of conjure 
"throw light upon the mental condition of the masses of this people, and the work that 
must be done among them if they are to be raised to civilization or even saved from 
extinction." 3 Public hostility, coupled with the rigors of a slave system which required 

3 R., L., G., and A., 30. 

supervised work from sunup to sundown, was enough to ensure that no African religion 
survived intact in the nineteenth-century South. 4 

Despite overt opposition to African belief systems, much in European beliefs 
helped preserve the very African convictions that whites sought to destroy. First and 
foremost, Europe had its own brands of magic workers. During the centuries preceding 
the settlement of the New World, belief in witchcraft was widespread in the countries 
which would later supply America with its white settlers. By the time colonists had 
begun to cross the Atlantic, the church and general populace had firmly defined 
witchcraft as a form of heresy characterized by malevolent magic acquired through pacts 
with the devil, whom they worshiped in groups called "covens." Witches also reputedly 
sacrificed and ate children, changed their shape at will, and bent spirits to their service. It 
inspired such terror that it led to the deaths of at least 60,000 on charges of witchcraft 
during the late middle ages and early modern period. 5 Some estimates range above 
1,000,000. Not until the eighteenth century did prosecution of witchcraft largely 
disappear from European legal systems. 6 

4 Asbury, 254-259; Porteous, 61-63; Robert Tallant, "Chronology of Voodoo," 
photocopy, pp. 245-247, New Orleans Public Library, New Orleans, Louisiana; Joyner, 

5 For the reality of witchcraft, see Jeffrey Burton Russell, Witchcraft in the Middle 
Ages (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1972), 20-23. Russell argues that 
while many victims of witchcraft accusations were innocent, witchcraft itself was a 
genuine practice, using satanic pacts and magic as a way of rejecting the dominant social 

6 Russell, 1-43, 232-233; Brian P. Levack, The Witch-hunt in Early Modern 
Europe (London and New York: Longman, 1987), 19-22. For the classic witch hunters' 
manual, see Henricus Institoris, Malleus Maleficarum, trans, and with an introduction, 
bibliography, and notes by Montague Summers (New York: Benjamin Blom, Inc., 1928). 

Witchcraft did not stay in the Old World. During the seventeenth and eighteenth 
centuries, Anglo-American colonists accused at least three hundred forty- four of their 
neighbors of witchcraft. About one in ten suffered execution. Ninety percent of the 
accused witches were New Englanders. Others took place in middle colonies like New 
York and Pennsylvania, with the last witch killing carried out by a Philadelphia mob in 
1787. Rather than being a sign of witchcraft's absence from the South, however, the 
paucity of prosecutions reflected the region's more tolerant attitude in respect to religion 
and magic. For example, in Virginia, when allegations of witchcraft appeared before the 
courts, plaintiffs were likely to suffer fines for false accusation. Very few supposed 
witches suffered any punishment, and the death penalty was virtually unknown. 7 

Among the plain folk, particularly in the backwoods, witches were reportedly 
common and feared. While backwoods settlers killed no witches, they nevertheless 
regarded them as a malevolent force to be reckoned with. Among their evil acts, they 
would transform unwitting sleepers into horses and ride them, bewitch cattle to stop them 
giving milk, and kill or injure victims by throwing "witch-balls" at pictures of their 
victims. 8 The most celebrated instance of southern witchcraft took place in Tennessee. 
In the first half of the nineteenth century, a mysterious shape-shifting and often invisible 
being reportedly tormented John Bell and his family with apparitions, cursing from empty 
air, and physical attacks, eventually bringing about his death and breaking up the family. 

7 David Hackett Fischer, Albion 's Seed: Four British Folkways in America (New 
York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 127-130, 340-344, 526-530, 704-710. 

8 These witch-balls were made of hair from cows or horses, rolled into a ball 
between the hands of a witch. 

Though suspicions focused on a woman by the name of Mrs. Batts, well known for 
practicing minor acts of magic, she was never formally accused. 9 

To prevent one's case from progressing to the seriousness of that faced by the 
Bells, one could call on professional "witchmasters" or witch-hunters, who offered their 
services to drive out witches and cure the supernatural illnesses inflicted by them. 10 For 
less serious cases, a variety of home remedies were readily available. For instance, a 
broom lain across a doorway prevented witches from entering. Likewise, sieves hung on 
the doors compelled witches to pass through each hole before entering a home, usually 
convincing them to look elsewhere. Despite whites' attempts to define blacks as 
superstitiously backward (and many blacks ready acceptance of this proposition), many 
whites were also strongly attached to supernaturalism." 

Popular beliefs about European witches did much to preserve African ideas about 
workers of magic. The European concept of witches' pacts with Satan reinforced existing 
African ideas about sorcerers, who often obtained their powers by deals with evil spirits. 
Moreover, as Zora Neale Hurston and Harry Middleton Hyatt discovered, at least some 
conjurers made the satanic pacts of which they were accused. European witches' 
supposed custom of meeting in groups helped preserve African concepts of witch 

9 Fischer, 704-710; Josiah Henry Combs, "Sympathetic Magic in the Kentucky 
Mountains: Some Curious Folk-survivals," Journal of American Folk-Lore 27 (1914): 
328-330; Cross, 236-241. 

10 In the Bell's case, the witch-hunters failed. 

"Fischer, 704-710; Josiah Henry Combs, "Sympathetic Magic in the Kentucky 
Mountains: Some Curious Folk-survivals," Journal of American Folk-Lore 27 (1914): 
328-330; Cross, 236-241; Wyland Hand, ed., Popular Beliefs and Superstitions from 
North Carolina, vol. 7, The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore, ed. 
Newman Ivey White (Durham: University of North Carolina Press, 1964), 121-136. 

societies. Moreover, the coven idea doubtless played a part in transforming Africa's 
pervasive men and women's societies into true secret societies, devoted to the practice of 
magic. Whites even had their own witchmasters, who operated in the same capacity as 
African witch doctors. This fact contributed to the survival of the notion of a conjure 
doctor, who cured those who had been harmed by hoodooists, though individuals usually 
practiced both malevolent and benevolent magic. 12 

The powers and practices of European witches likewise shared many features with 
African magic workers, good and evil. Most notably, European witches trafficked in the 
world of spirits, usually to harm their victims. In Africa, of course, witches were not the 
only ones who dealt with spirits. Priests, chiefs, sorcerers, and members of other 
professions did so as well, with the major difference in their practices being the tier of the 
divine hierarchy that they addressed. The similar beliefs of the two cultures ensured that 
virtually all conjurers, regardless of the source of their powers, claimed to control 
supernatural entities, ranging from the exorcism of ghosts to the ability to imbue luck- 
balls with indwelling spirits. Also, as in Europe, African witches reputedly engaged in 
cannibalism, though their brand involved the eating of souls rather than flesh. Such 
beliefs were the basis for Braziel Robinson's concern that his two good spirits could be 
replaced by other evil human spirits he might inadvertently meet. African and European 
ideas of human sacrifice and cannibalism on the part of witches also supported rumors 
that Latin-area Voodoo queens kept murdered children in their homes. Witches' shape- 
shifting abilities were also present in both cultures. In whites' belief, witches frequently 

12 Parrinder, 135-136, 165-168; Hurston, "Hoodoo in America," 390-391; Hyatt, 
Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft-Rootwork, 97-111; Gomez, 94-102; Kennedy, "Nanigo 
in Florida," 153-156; Mary Owen, "Among the Voodoos," 231. 

transformed themselves into cats, rabbits, and other animals. African witches had the 
power to become cats, owls, and bats. This ability, though not common, was nevertheless 
possessed by some conjurers, such as Railroad Bill, the legendary outlaw/conjurer. 13 

Other European magical forms likewise reinforced African features of conjure. 
Most notably, charms and spells were easily obtainable from "white" witches. 14 In Great 
Britain, such specialists were commonly known as "cunning" men and women. They 
specialized in finding lost property, healing, fortunetelling, and making charms for luck, 
love, and protection. Like African- American conjurers, they usually charged for their 
services. These magical specialists survived in the American South. Southern whites of 
all social classes had frequent recourse to fortunetellers, particularly astrologers. Others 
turned to white witches to discover underground streams, remove curses, and perform a 
variety of feats traditionally ascribed to European white witches. A variety of homemade 
magical formulas were available to any who wanted to use them. For example, male 
Kentuckians believed that giving women water in which the paddle of a goose's foot had 
been boiled compelled them to love them. Other spells purportedly protected crops, 
improved the health of livestock, and otherwise bettered the lives of those who cast 
them. 15 

13 Parrinder, 135-136, 165-169; Steiner, "Braziel Robinson Possessed of Two 
Spirits," 226-227; Hand, Popular Beliefs and Superstitions, 121; Tallant, "Voodoo in 
New Orleans," 88-97; Cross, 236-241; Carmer, 122-125. 

14 I use the term "white witch" in the colloquial sense of a worker of benevolent 

,5 Thomas, 212-222, 231-252; Combs, 330; Hand, Popular Beliefs and 
Superstitions, 155-182; Long, Spiritual Merchants, 74, 230; Gainer, 112-120, 139-142. 

Even European science aided the survival of African magic. During the early 
colonial period, many European sciences had not yet developed as a field of study distinct 
from religion and what modern scholars call magic. Such eminent scientists as Isaac 
Newton were deeply interested in alchemy, chiefly known for its practitioners' attempts 
to transform base metals into gold. According to Keith Thomas, author of Religion and 
the Decline of Magic, belief in certain types of what is now seen as magic was taken for 
granted by most intellectuals. At the heart of magic's believability was the idea that the 
universe was a living system, peopled by a hierarchy of spirits. Furthermore, it operated 
through a series of correspondences among different physical parts of the world. In this 
system, each human was a microcosm of the universe. For this reason, astrology and 
related fortunetelling practices were not necessarily magic to intellectuals. Instead, if 
studied carefully, the correspondence between the movements of stars and planets could 
conceivably become a science for the prediction of individuals' futures. Similarly, when 
based on correspondences, magic was an effective means of improving one's life or 
harming others. What seventeenth-century intellectuals described as science, modern 
folklorists and anthropologists define as a European form of sympathetic magic. 16 
In the field of medicine, books of home remedies circulated throughout the 
colonial and antebellum periods. These ranged from works of traditional herbal 
treatments for ailments to treaties which purported to cure disease based on the magical 
properties of plants, animals, stones, and planets. One of the more well-known of the 

16 B. J. T. Dobbs, The Foundations of Newton 's Alchemy: or, "The Hunting of the 
Greene Lyon " (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975); Thomas, 222-231. See 
also The Complete Book of Fortune: How to Reveal the Secrets of the Past, the Present 
and the Future (Associated Newspapers, Ltd., 1936; republication, New York: Crescent 
Books, 1990) for some examples of European fortunetelling practices. 

latter was Pow-Wows, or Long Lost Friend, by John George Hohman, which contained 
Pennsylvania Amish remedies for ills ranging from bleeding to swelling in cattle. One 
striking example of the magical nature of Pow-Wows' cures was the remedy for fever, 
which prescribed writing "Potmat Sineat, Potmat Sineat, Potmat Sineaf'on a piece of 
paper and then wrapping it in knot-grass. To complete the cure, the packet was to be tied 
to the body of the afflicted. Most remedies followed the Doctrine of Signatures, the folk 
healing equivalent of seventeenth-century intellectuals' theory of correspondences or 
modern anthropology's sympathetic magic. According to the doctrine, materials within 
the natural world indicated their properties through their physical appearance. For 
example, European herbalists believed that the wild pansy was a potent cardiac tonic due 
to its heart-shaped leaves. 17 

How do we know that the two races interacted in the realm of the supernatural? 
First, whites often equated African- American magic with European witchcraft. During 
the Salem witch scare, at least three of the accused were black. Of course, it was the 
Tituba's practice of Voodoo which ignited the panic in the first place. More important, 

17 Thomas, 177-222; Tallant, "Chronology of Voodoo," 245-254; Oscar Reiss, 
Medicine in Colonial America (Lanham, New York, and Oxford: University Press of 
America, Inc., 2000), 183-232; Elizabeth Barnaby Keeney, "Unless Powerful Sick: 
Domestic Medicine in the Old South," in Science and Medicine in the Old South, ed. 
Ronald L. Numbers and Todd L. Savitt (Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State 
University Press, 1989), 276-294; Kay K. Moss, Southern Folk Medicine, 1750-1820 
(Columbia: University of South Carolina, 1999); John George Hohman, Pow-Wows, or 
Long Lost Friend: A Collection of Mysterious and Invaluable Arts and Remedies for Man 
As Well As Animals-With Many Proofs (1855; reprint, Brooklyn: Fulton Religious 
Supply), 26; David Conway, The Magic of Herbs (New York: E. P. Dutton and Company, 
Inc., 1973), 27-30. For a book of magical cures extant during the early colonial period, 
see Michael R. Best and Frank H. Brightman, The Book of Secrets ofAlbertus Magnus of 
the Virtues of Herbs, Stones and Certain Beasts-Also a Book of the Marvels of the 
World, Studies in Tudor and Stuart Literature series, ed. F. H. Mares and A. T. 
Brissenden, vol. 2 (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press). 

the very presence of European charms and magical worldviews helped insure that African 
charms would survive, making whites potential clients for black conjurers. Furthermore, 
the universal principle of sympathy made blacks' magic all the more acceptable to the 
ruling class. As a consequence, several examples of white participation in conjure appear 
in nineteenth-century sources. European- Americans commonly participated in Voodoo 
magical rituals. Charles D. Warner reported that several whites attended a New Orleans 
Voodoo ceremony that he witnessed. He was shocked to learn that one of them was a 
"pure white" Episcopalian from the American section of the city. Having described her 
as "pretty, modest girl, very reticent, well-bred, polite, and civil" he lamented the "deep 
hold the superstition had upon her nature." 18 Whites also took part in African-American 
magic in other locales. Aunt Zippy Tull of Maryland served European- American clients. 
In one instance, she healed a white woman cursed by a romantic rival, another white 
female. 19 

Just as whites participated in African- American magic, so did blacks take part in 
European- American supernaturalism. For example, Byrl Anderson, a Tennessee slave, 
reported that his white master told fortunes using a Bible suspended on a string. 
According to Gladys-Marie Fry, slaveowners fostered respect of the supernatural to make 
it easier to control their slaves. Masters' virtually unchecked power over bondspersons 
was a strong incentive to obedience on its own. A slaveowner possessing occult abilities 
was even more fearsome. Participation in whites' supernaturalism was not always foisted 

18 Warner, 68-69. 

19 Timothy J. McMillan, "Black Magic: Witchcraft, Race, and Resistance in 
Colonial New England," Journal of Black Studies 25 (1994): 99-1 1 7; Breslaw, 535-556; 
Warner, 64-74; Hyatt, Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft-Rootwork, 5-6. 

upon blacks. African-Americans frequently resorted to white conjurers in times of need. 
The first Dr. Buzzard of Beaufort, South Carolina, served a primarily black clientele. The 
same was true of Dr. Harris, another white South Carolinian rootworker. A few literate 
blacks had access to printed magical treatises, which they used alongside African 
traditions. Les Secrets Merveilleux de la Magie Naturelle du Petit Albert, a French 
grimoire, was one example. It was long popular among black Louisianians, who knew it 
as the 'Tit Albert? 

The Christian faith, which did much to undermine conjure, also helped to preserve 
it. As mentioned in Chapter 3, followers of Voodoo and Naftigo kept their African gods 
and goddesses alive within the realm of Catholic saints (see Chart 2). These were not 
simply African gods masked with saint names, though. On the contrary, certain saints 
shared their personalities with African gods, effectively becoming a single being 
worshiped in two different ways, depending on whether the Voodoo devotee was 
participating in a St. John's Eve dance or attending mass. In most cases, the merging of 
the pairs originated in characteristics shared by both god and saint. For instance, Blanc 
Dani, the Voodoo snake god, shared an identity with St. Michael the Archangel, 

20 Yvonne Chireau, "Conjure and Christianity in the Nineteenth Century: Religious 
Elements in African American Magic," Religion and American Culture: A Journal of 
Interpretation 1 (1997): 235; Charles Perdue, Thomas Barden, and Robert Phillips, 
Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-slaves (Charlottesville: University 
Press of Virginia, 1976), 1 1 ; Gladys-Marie Fry, Night Riders in Black Folk History 
(Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1975), 59-81; Hyatt, Hoodoo-Conjuration- 
Witchcraft-Rootwork, iii-iv; Cable, Grandissimes, 147-156; Long, Spiritual Merchants, 

frequently depicted in religious iconography battling a serpentine Satan. 21 Likewise, St. 
Peter, keeper of the keys of heaven, was identical with Papa Lebat, the linguist god who 
opened the door to other deities at the beginning of religious rituals. 22 The Catholic 
practice of honoring saints with holidays and statues provided foci for blacks' worship of 
the gods, analogous to African practices, which frequently employed images of divinities 
and festivals in their honor. For example, St. John's Eve was a Catholic holiday 
characterized by bonfires and visits to holy bodies of water, with which blacks linked 
traditional African practices of ritual bathing, drumming, singing, and dancing. 23 
Table 2: Selected Gods with Catholic Equivalents in the Latin South 

God Names 


Function in Latin Cultural Area 

Area of 

Bon Dieu 


Omnipotent and omniscient, 
supreme being 


Monsieur Danny, 
Blanc Dani, Grand 
Zombie, Voodoo 

St. Michael 

Chief god, worshiped in the form 
of a snake, god of discord, defeats 

Louisiana and 

Papa Lebat, Liba, 

St. Peter 

Trickster, doorkeeper, evil 


Monsieur Agoussou, 
Vert Agoussou 

St. Anthony 

God of love 


2 'In Haitian Vodou, Damballah Ouedo, the equivalent of Monsieur Danny, was 
the equivalent of Saint Patrick, due to the saint's association with serpents in Catholic 
iconography. St. Michael, frequently shown defeating a serpentine devil in religious art, 
came to be identified with Monsieur Danny in a similar manner. See Hurston, Tell My 
Horse, 116. 


Satan, to whom whites often attributed all conjure, filled a position similar to the 
saints in the Latin zone. For example, Nanigo's Elegba, the trickster god, was identical 
with the devil. The same may have occasionally been true for Papa Lebat, who was also 
sometimes regarded as an evil god. 

"Cable, The Grandissimes, 182; Pitkin, 185-213, 260-292; Jacobs and Kaslow, 
82-92; Hauptmann, 197-200; Long, Spiritual Merchants, 50-51. 


Table 2. Continued 

God Names Catholic Function in Latin Cultural Area Area of 

Equivalent Worship 

Elegba The devil Evil spirit Florida 

Shango St. Barbara Spirit of good and evil, justice, Florida 

and thunder 

Yemaya Virgin of Regla Spirit of the air and sea Florida 

SOURCES: Long, Spiritual Merchants, 3-96; Cable, The Grandissimes, 99, 101, 135, 182, 184, 257, 272, 
311, 447, 453-456, 468; Pitkin, 185-213, 260-292; Cable, "Creole Slave Songs," 807-828; Cable, "The 
Dance in Place Congo," 517-532; Jacobs and Kaslow, 82-92; Murphy, 77; Brandon, Santeria; Metraux, 
28, 31, 100-119; Hauptmann, 197-200. 

NOTE: There is little information on the saint equivalents of African- American Floridians' gods. As a 
result, the equivalents come from works on the closely-related Cuban Santeria. The exception to this rule 
is Elegba. In Cuba, where Santeria developed, Elegba was much less sinister. Cubans identified him with 
the Holy Child of Atoche, an aspect of Jesus, or St. Anthony of Padua. See Brandon, 77, and Murphy, 42- 

In the Anglo zone, where the Great Awakenings largely eradicated the African 
faiths, God took on the attributes of Africa's lesser deities, becoming a powerful source 
of magical powers (see Chapter 4). God's position within conjure mirrored His place in 
the religious life of blacks: He superseded all other spiritual forces. The mere presence of 
Christian belief in the supernatural helped African magic to survive by providing a 
foundation for its practice. 24 

European beliefs did more than just help African magic survive. On the contrary, 
it made its own unique contributions to conjure. The most readily apparent European 
influence was in the terminology of conjure. In the Latin zone, African terms like 
"hoodoo" and "wanga" were more popular than European words to describe African- 
American magic, but in the Anglo zone, the situation was much different. There, they 
were usually known as "conjurers," an English term referring to those who used 

24 Adams, Rawick, ed., supplement 2, vol. 2, 16-22. See also Smith, Conjuring 

incantations to call up and control spirits, a concept adopted from Jewish Kabbala. 
Hoodooists' abilities to perform similar feats led them to adopt the title. The less 
common use of "witch" to signify African- American sorcerers likewise arose from a 
situation in which blacks' reputed magical powers mirrored that of their European 
counterparts. Less common titles like "high man," "high woman," and "cunning doctor" 
replicated English terms for white witches. Another rare term, "pow-wow doctor" 
hearkened back to the Pennsylvania German magical tradition, known as powwow. The 
best published representative of these folk customs was the Pow-Wows of John George 
Hohman, or to give his proper name, Johann Georg Hohman. Strange as it may seem, 
Amish remedies had spread throughout the Anglo South by the mid- 1800s but were most 
common in Maryland and Virginia, due to their proximity to Pennsylvania. 25 

Europe contributed more than just words to hoodoo. In the Latin cultural area, 
Roman Catholicism deeply affected the shape of hoodoo rituals. Charles D. Warner's 
account of a Voodoo ceremony clearly demonstrated the impact of European Christianity. 
The most notable feature of the room in which the ritual took place was an altar 
surmounted by a statuette of the Virgin Mary and candles, all explicitly Catholic symbols. 
While altars were common in Africa, black Louisianans abandoned their traditional 
forms, which often took the shape of the deity worshiped through its use, in favor of the 

25 Pennethorne Hughes, Witchcraft (Longmans, Green, 1952; Hammondsworth and 
Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1973), 154, 165; Levack, 33; Arthur Edward Waite, The Book 
of Ceremonial Magic: The Secret in Goetia, with a Foreword by John C. Wilson (New 
York: Citadel Press, 1994), 236-296; Long, Spiritual Merchants, 74, 121, 230; Moss, 
153-154; Hyatt, Hoodoo - Conjuration - Witchcraft - Rootwork, 11,17, 275, 278, 280- 
281, 284, 308, 310, 314, 336, 337; Annie Weston Whitney and Caroline Canfield 
Bullock, Folk-Lore from Maryland (New York: American Folk-Lore Society, 1925), 81- 

rectangular one of Catholicism. Upon or surrounding the altar were often offerings of 
food for the saints/gods. In other cases, the altar held different forms of offerings, 
including money, alcohol, and other items favored by the deity being entreated. Perhaps 
the most common offerings, however, were candles. Long used in Catholic rituals 
honoring God and the saints, they were easily adapted to dealings with the deities of Latin 
zone hoodoo. In African- American magic, however, candles were a way to please deities, 
usually by choosing colors favored by particular gods/saints. For example, when seeking 
help in matters of finance, one would burn a green candle, sympathetically linked to 
money by its color. Assonquer, the god of good fortune, would respond. If the candle 
sputtered, his aid was unlikely. To deal with enemies, black candles were the color of 
choice. Catholic statues, like the one seen by Warner, indicated the god/saint being 
honored by the offerings. 26 

In the Latin zone of the American South, many of the beings honored with altars 
and candles in hoodoo were of European origin. Alongside deities with shared African- 
European roots, like Blanc Dani/St. Peter and Papa Lebat/St. Michael, were a variety of 
orthodox Catholic saints without any overt link to specific African gods and goddesses. 
For example, the Virgin Mary, whose statuette surmounted the altar observed by Warner, 
was widely honored in hoodoo rituals but apparently assigned no counterpart from the 
pantheon of Louisiana's Voodoo goddesses. Despite her important role in Catholic 
belief, she took a prominent position in several magical rituals. According to Helen 

26 Warner, 64-74; Cable, Grandissimes, 100-101; Pitkin, 193; Hyatt, Hoodoo- 
Conjuration-Witchcraft-Rootwork, 797-862; Greg Dues, Catholic Customs and 
Traditions: A Popular Guide, revised ed. (Mystic: Twenty-third Publications, 1992), 186- 
188. See also Thompson, Face of the Gods, for a discussion of African-style altars. 

Pitkin's account of another hoodoo ritual, the ceremony opened with a "Hail Mary." 
There followed invocations to a variety of Voodoo gods, including Blanc Dani and Liba. 
Returning to Catholic antecedents, the ritual ended with the "Litany of the Blessed 
Virgin." Other saints commonly appeared in rites designed to persuade them to serve the 
will of the conjurer. St. Rita, patron of desperate cases due to her experience of abuse at 
the hands of a brutal husband, was popular amongst women. One of Hyatt's informants 
explained that St. Rita was bad luck to women with husbands, but helped those without 
them. Men, however, need not seek her aid. As the informer put it, "she won't do 
anything for men at all because she don't like them." 27 Another informant told Hyatt how 
women could convince her to grant wishes. Suppliants placed a white candle, flowers, 
and money before a picture of the saint. She then approached the altar on nine 
consecutive mornings, asking that the wish be granted. 28 At the end of the period, St. Rita 
would do as she was asked. St. Raymond, St. Ann, St. Roc, and even Jesus Himself were 
parties to conjurers' acts. 29 

One Christian contribution which reached beyond the Latin zone was the Bible. 
As a book from God, it became an important magical text throughout the South. 
According to Zora Neale Hurston, it was "the great conjure book in the world." 30 For 

27 Hyatt, Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft-Rootwork, 880-888. 

28 Bear in mind that nine was a popular number in hoodoo, especially in the 
Louisiana area. 

29 Warner, 64-74; Pitkin, 185-210; Hyatt, Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft- 
Rootwork, 872, 877-888; David Hugh Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, 3 rd ed. 
(Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), s. v. "Rita of Cascia." 

30 Hurston, Mules and Men, 280. 

William Adams, it was a manual for potential conjurers, teaching them to drive out evil 

spirits by prayer. Others used selections from the Bible in their spells. 31 Conjurers chose 

verses for their clients based on passages' similarity to the result to be accomplished, 

keeping within the rules of sympathetic magic. For example, conjurers' and their clients 

could successfully deal with unwilling tradesmen if they read Psalm 56 three times before 

bed and again before sunrise. Both readings were to be carried out while facing east. 

Psalm 56, one of David's prayers for deliverance while at the mercy of the Philistines, 

was an excellent choice in such situations. In other cases, the power of the Bible went 

beyond its words. According to one of Hyatt's informants, "the law" could be kept away 

by placing a page from the Bible over one's door, held in place with nine needles. 32 

Not all of the European features of conjure came from the Christian faith (see 

Chart 3). Others came from European supernaturalism. Charms for protection and luck, 

which appeared throughout both cultural zones, were the most plentiful of this class. For 

example, one of the strongest protective charms among nineteenth-century blacks was the 

horseshoe. According to Elihu, a South Carolinian slave, a horseshoe hung over the 

entrance to a home thwarted witches' attempts to ride sleepers. This practice was a 

wholesale import from England. Reginald Scot's 1584 book, The Discoverie of 

Witchcraft, recorded that one of the chief methods of keeping witches out of homes was 

For the following examples, I rely on Hyatt's Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft- 
Rootwork due to the lack of sources detailing the passages tied to particular results. 

32 Adams, Rawick, ed., supplement 2, vol. 2, 16-19; Hyatt, Hoodoo-Conjuration- 
Witchcraft-Rootwork, 523, 673. See also Smith, esp. 3-15. In Conjuring Culture, Smith 
argued that African- Americans chose their verses based on the genre of the particular 
book. For instance, Exodus was used for "conjuring-God-for-freedom," while the 
gospels were more useful for "curing violence." 

"to naille a horsse shoo at the inside of the outmost threshhold of your house." 33 Rabbit's 
feet were a popular charm for luck and protection among nineteenth-century blacks. Like 
horseshoes, however, their use originated in Europe. In Britain, those who carried the 
unfortunate creature's limb gained good luck and were safe from muscular cramps, 
cholic, arthritis, and attacks by evil spirits. 34 

Horseshoes and rabbits' feet were well-known lucky charms employed by both 
blacks and whites, but other items of European origin came to be tied almost wholly to 
blacks. For instance, cinquefoil, long recognized as a demon and witch repellent, came to 
be known as five finger grass among African- Americans. Much more common among 
blacks than whites, its possessors variously employed it as a protective device, a cure for 
conjure, and a charm for drawing money. 35 Even John the Conqueror, most famous of 
African- American root charms, was at least partially European in origin. While the idea 
of John the Conqueror was a descendant of African concepts, like the Kongo minkisi, the 
roots used in Africa did not always grow in the United States. As a result, one of John 
the Conqueror's earliest American forms emerged from European herbalism. Mary 

"Reginald Scot, The Discoverie of Witchcraft, with an Introduction by Hugh Ross 
Williamson (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1964), 227, 230 

34 "The Religious Life of the Negro Slave," 822; Scot, 227, 230; Lucy Kimball, 
interview by Francois Ludgere Diard (Mobile, AL, May 7, 1937), The American Slave: A 
Composite Autobiography, George P. Rawick, ed., (Westport, CT: Greenwood 
Publishing Company, 1977), supplement 1, vol. 1, 230; Iona Opie and Moira Tatem, eds., 
A Dictionary of Superstitions (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 


The last function most likely arose from its resemblance to a green hand. 

Alicia Owen, identified the nineteenth-century form of Conquer- John as Solomon's Seal 
{Polygonatum multiflorum), a plant long known in Europe for its medicinal properties. 36 

Blacks also used European magic in more than just the making of charms. For 
instance, playing cards were often used in fortunetelling and the diagnosis of magical 
illnesses, a practice common in Europe for centuries. Some blacks employed a divination 
system supposedly used by Napoleon Bonaparte, which centered around the interpretation 
of self-made dots on a paper. Malevolent magic likewise found its way from Europe to 
African- American hoodooists. The pillow magic of Latin-area conjurers was one notable 
European contribution. German settlers, in particular, believed that witches hexed beds 
and pillows, causing wreathes or animal shapes to form in their feather stuffings. Once 
the figures were fully formed, those who slept in the bed would die. European witches 
also bequeathed the power of the "evil eye" to their African- American brethren. Blacks 
with the power of the evil eye could cause illness or otherwise harm people simply by 
looking at them. Nevertheless, a surefire protection was the knuckle bone of a pig, 

carried in the pocket. 37 

36 Hurston, Mules and Men, 279; Hyatt, Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft- 
Rootwork, 440-441, 553-554; Johann Weyer, Witches, Devils, and Doctors in the 
Renaissance, trans, by John Shea, introduction and notes by George Mora, and with a 
Foreward by John Weber (Binghampton: Medieval & Renaissance Texts and Studies, 
1991), 424; Mary Owen, Voodoo Tales, 1 13; M. Grieve, A Modern Herbal: The Medical, 
Culinary, Cosmetic and Economic Properties, Cultivation, and Folk-Lore of Herbs, 
Grasses, Fungi, Shrubs & Trees with All Their Modern Scientific Uses, with an 
Introduction by C. F. Leyel and an Index of Scientific Names by Manya Marshall (New 
York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1971), 749-450. 

"Carrie Pollard, interview by Ruby Pickens Tartt (Livingston, AL, May 23, 1937), 
The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, George P. Rawick, ed., (Westport, 
CT: Greenwood Publishing Company, 1973), vol. 6, 319; Complete Book of Fortune, 13- 
57, 250-268; Aunt Sally 's Policy Players ' Dream Book and Wheel of Fortune (New York: 
H. J. Wehman, 1889; Los Angeles: Indio Products, Inc.), 52-61; M. P. Handy, 666; Hyatt, 

But how did blacks learn the magic of the white ruling class? Throughout the 
antebellum period, whites and blacks came into frequent contact as masters and slaves. 
House servants, who typically lived in the homes of their owners, were in constant 
association with whites. This situation continued into the late nineteenth century. 
Observation alone would allow blacks to learn many of the ruling class' supernatural 
practices. Individuals of mixed European and African ancestry had even greater 
opportunity of learning magic from white parents, and despite the racial assumptions of 
the period, miscegenation was far from uncommon. Slave masters throughout the South 
sometimes treated their female slaves as sexual objects. In New Orleans, "quadroon 
balls" helped young white men to meet mixed-race women, often for the purpose of 
concubinage. The result was a large mulatto community in the city. Similar situations 
prevailed in Charleston and other large cities. Late nineteenth-century whites' awareness 
of the secretive practices of black conjure testify to the permeability of the racial barrier. 38 

Whites and blacks sometimes intentionally taught each other their magic. The 
presence of white witches and conjurers, the latter of whom catered to a black clientele, 
were one way in which the races exchanged information. During the 1920s, Newbell 
Niles Puckett, a white male, began to practice conjure in order to learn more of African- 
American magic. Referring to his time as a hoodooist, he wrote, "Even conjurers are not 
without their professional spirit, and I found them quite willing to swap clinical 

Folk-Lorefrom Adams County Illinois, 488-498; Philippa Waring, The Dictionary of 
Omens & Superstitions, 1986 ed. (Secaucus: Chartwell Books, Inc., 1986), s. v. "Evil 
Eye," 87-88; Sara Handy, 739. 

38 Gary B. Nash, Red, White and Black: The Peoples of Early North America, 4 th 
ed. (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2000), 174-175, 303-308; Saxon, 
Tallant, and Dreyer, 159-160. 

knowledge and even materia medica with one, once they believed him to be a 'rale trick- 
doctor.'" 39 Doubtless, many African- American conjurers learned European magic 
through similar exchanges. Those African- Americans who visited white conjurers, like 
the first Dr. Buzzard or Dr. Harris, certainly gleaned tidbits of the magical art. However 
acquired, European practices had transformed conjure by the end of the century. No 
longer was hoodoo an African practice. 40 

While popular authors and television producers have typically minimized 
European contributions, Native Americans' impact on conjure has rarely even been 
acknowledged. Nevertheless, blacks have interacted with American Indians almost as 
long as they have with Europeans. Whenever whites and blacks moved into a new area, 
they encountered aboriginal peoples. Furthermore, as two peoples persecuted by 
European immigrants, blacks and Indians often made common cause against their 
oppressors. The first to do so were black slaves, who escaped from a Spanish expedition 
up the Carolina coast in 1526, living out their lives among the Guale people. When the 
descendants of the same people, known as Yamasee by that time, revolted against English 
South Carolina in 1715, runaway slaves fought at their side. Despite defeat, the Yamasee 
refused to surrender their black comrades. Creeks, Cherokees, and other Native 
American peoples likewise accepted black runaways into their society. Flight to the 
Indians remained a viable option for slaves well into the antebellum period. The best 


Puckett, Folk Beliefs, 206. 

40 Puckett, Folk Beliefs, 206; Moss, 152-162; Hand, Popular Beliefs and 
Superstitions, 113, 151, 155-157; Hyatt, Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft-Rootwork, iii- 
iv; Chireau, "Conjure and Christianity," 225-246; Long, Spiritual Merchants, 16; Cable, 
Grandissimes, 147-156. 

known instance of black-Indian mixing was that of Florida's Seminoles, who welcomed 
African- Americans as part of their tribe. Fugitive slaves were so numerous in Seminole 
territory that the United States began a series of three wars against them in July 1816 for 
the purpose of closing off Florida to runaways and recapturing those blacks already living 
among the Indians. At the same time, African-Americans augmented the Seminoles' 
capacity to resist the American military. According to legend, an escaped African 
conjurer, called Uncle Monday, aided the Seminoles in their wars. Following a defeat on 
the shores of Lake Maitland, he refused to submit to slavery and escaped in the form of an 
alligator. Those not so gifted as Uncle Monday, however, submitted to the United States 
and resettled in the Indian Territory (modern Oklahoma). Even after their defeat, blacks 
accompanied the tribe into exile, remaining there throughout the century. 41 

Not all blacks who lived among American Indians were fugitives. Many were 
slaves to Indian masters. Nineteenth-century traveler Henry C. Benson stated that 
Choctaws turned to slavery as depleted hunting grounds forced them into agriculture. 
According to Benson, Choctaws despised manual labor to such a degree that he stated, 
"even very poor Indians will manage to get possession of one or two negroes to perform 
their heavy work." 42 Seminoles, Creeks, Cherokees, Chickasaws, and many other peoples 
likewise adopted slavery during the colonial and antebellum eras, taking their human 

41 Nash, 170-171, 308-314; Edwin C. McReynolds, The Seminoles (Norman: 
University of Oklahoma Press, 1957),23, 48, 179, 185, 263, 302-312; Charles Hudson, 
The Southeastern Indians (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1976), 465-467; 
Kennedy, Palmetto Country, 131-133. 

42 Henry Clark Benson, Life among the Choctaw Indians and Sketches of the 
South-west, with an introduction by T. A. Morris (Cincinnati: L. Swormstedt & A. Poe, 
1860; reprint, Johnson Reprint Corporation, 1970), 34. 

chattel with them upon their removal to the Indian Territory. More important than black 
slaves' presence among American Indians, however, was the comparative freedom 
allowed them in Native American society as opposed to that of whites. Seminoles, who 
gave their slaves the greatest liberty, allowed bondsmen and bondswomen to live as they 
wished as long as they paid a portion of their agricultural produce each year. Henry Bibb 
attested to similarly benevolent treatment among the Cherokees of the Indian Territory. 
Having been purchased by a wealthy Cherokee planter, one of his first tasks was to carry 
$500 of his new master's money on a lengthy journey with minimal supervision. Bibb 
further testified that overseers were unknown on Native American plantations. 
Whippings and other forms of punishment were rare, and when slaves resisted, their 
owners had no legal recourse. He concluded by saying, "I had by far, rather be a slave to 
an Indian, than to a white man, from the experience I have had with both." 43 Under such 
conditions, cultural exchange with the ruling class was easy. 44 

According to nineteenth-century scholar James Mooney, a common 
misconception about Native Americans was they knew "every plant of the field and 
forest, and that the medicine man outranks the white physician in his knowledge of the 
healing art." 45 Whether true or not, American Indians' reputed powers over disease and 

43 Bibb, 153. 

"Benson, 34; Hudson, 457, 461, 465-466, 469; Bibb, 150-153. 

45 James Mooney, "Cherokee Theory and Practice of Medicine," Journal of 
American Folk-Lore 3 (1890): 44. So great was native Americans' reputation for 
medicinal lore that "Indian doctor" was a term used by many whites to designate all 
practitioners of herbalism. Dr. John was sometimes known as one. The title was likely 
inspired, at least in part, by the herbal manual, The Indian Doctor's Dispensatory. See 
Long, Spiritual Merchants, 44-45; Peter Smith, The Indian Doctor 's Dispensatory 
(Cincinnati: Browne and Looker, 1813). 

illness made knowledge of their arts a useful marketing tool in the hands of black 

conjurers. For instance, former slave Joseph William Carter reported that he had learned 
"Voodoo" from his cousin, a full-blooded Indian. His cousin was so well known that 
both blacks and whites called on him for healing. Even better than knowledge, however, 
was Native American ancestry. Notable New Orleans conjurers, including Marie Laveau, 
could claim Native American forebears. The practice of claiming Indian blood reached 
its height in Missouri, however, where blacks easily mingled with the peoples on the 
borders of white settlement as well as the "Five Civilized Tribes" removed from the Deep 
South to the Indian Territory. Mary Alicia Owen spoke to many who claimed Native 
American ancestry, tracing their roots to such peoples as the Lenni Lenape, Iowa, and 
Fox. King Alexander, the greatest conjurer encountered by Owen, was half Cherokee, 
half "Guinea." 46 

While European beliefs often worked against African ideas, Native American 
religion did little to undermine blacks' ancestral practices. On the contrary, Indian 
religions strongly resembled those of West and West Central Africa. Among the 
aboriginal inhabitants of the Southeast, belief in a supreme being who ruled the universe 
while remaining distant from humankind was common. Below the supreme god were a 
number of lesser gods or spirits. Among the Cherokee, the most widespread southern 
tribe, the universe was composed of three levels: the Upper World, This World, and the 

46 Joseph William Carter, interview by Launa Creel (Vanderburgh County, IN), 
The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, George P. Rawick, ed., (Westport, 
CT: Greenwood Publishing Company, 1973), supplement 6, vol. 2, 47; Mary Owen, 
Voodoo Tales, 3, 6, 8; Mary Owen, "Among the Voodoos," 241; Jason Berry, The Spirit 
of Black Hawk: A Mystery of Africans and Indians (Jackson: University Press of 
Mississippi, 1995), 97-101. 


Under World. 47 The inhabitants of the Upper and Under worlds mirrored the lesser gods 
of Africa. The greatest beings came from the Upper World, characterized by order, 
stability, and time past. Some of the most important of these were the sun, moon, and 
thunders. The Under World, in contrast, contained monsters and ghosts. Though 
fearsome and unpredictable, they also were responsible for innovation, fertility, and 
future time. Native Americans lived in This World. Under World creatures, including 
reptiles, amphibians, and fish, sometimes emerged from caves, rivers, and lakes, to harm 
humans. For a time, the beings of the Upper World lived in This World. As it became 
gradually less desirable, they returned to the Upper World, leaving behind lesser images 
of themselves in the form of plants and animals. Birds continued to be associated with 
the Upper World, however, due to their ability to fly. While plants befriended humans, 
animals became their enemies. Balance in the world and within individual humans 
required balancing elements from the Upper and Under worlds, for which the Cherokee 
turned to these living shadows of the divine. As in African and some European beliefs, 
each living thing (and sometimes inanimate objects or natural features) had a soul which 
gave it the power to help or harm those who dealt with it. Also, the use of animals and 
plants followed the principal of sympathy. For example, buzzards were symbolically 
linked to healing because of their ability to associate with dead creatures without ill 

47 . 

Although the Cherokee were but one of the many peoples who encountered 
African- Americans, their cosmology was typical of the southeastern religious beliefs. 
Moreover, during the nineteenth century, significant numbers of Cherokees had lived in a 
majority of the southern states, including Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, 
Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, Arkansas, Texas, and 
Oklahoma. A few escaped removal to the Indian Territory by fleeing to Mexico, where 
their descendants still dwell. Others managed to remain in the Southeast. See James 
Mooney, Myths of the Cherokee and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees (Nashville: 
Charles and Randy Elder-Booksellers, 1982), 14-181. 

effects. Due to their use and place on earth, animals and plants were analogous to the 
three lowest tiers of the northern West African spiritual hierarchy and the minkisi of the 
Kongo. Many Native Americans also worshiped their ancestors. For Cherokees, this was 
a minor feature of their faith, expressed primarily in respectful treatment of the dead to 
avoid ghostly reprisals. Among other peoples, the dead served as guardian spirits, 
intermediaries between humans and lesser gods, and manipulators of natural 
phenomena. 48 

Alongside Catholicism, late slave importation, and high black-to-white ratios, the 
proximity of Indians practicing traditional religions helped ensure that the western Latin 
cultural area would retain strong African religious elements. The best illustration of the 
interaction between Native American and African beliefs was the survival of the African 
snake god, Da. As was the case with Voodoo's gods/saints, Da's identity merged with 
that of Indian deities. Snake gods and spirits were plentiful in the beliefs of southeastern 
Indians. Chief among the beings of the Under World was a giant creature, known as 
Uktena to the Cherokees. Combining physical elements resembling animals symbolic of 
the Under, Upper, and This worlds, it had a snakelike body, wings, and antlers. Living in 
enmity with the Upper World, it eventually fell to a hawk-like deity, called Tlanuwa. A 
variety of other serpentine creatures from the Under World also interacted with the 
human world. Because of their lack of appendages, Indians set snakes apart from other 
animals, crediting them with power over other animals, plants, and the elements. 

48 Hudson, 127-132, 169-173; Denise Lardner Carmody and John Tully Carmody, 
Native American Religions: An Introduction (New York and Mahwah: Paulist Press, 
1993), 15-40; Ake Hultkrantz, Belief and Worship in Native North America, ed. and with 
an Introduction by Christopher Vecsey (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1981), 91- 

Mightiest of all was rattlesnake. Once, he had saved humankind from death at the hands 
of the sun, who had tried to wipe them out with disease. Thus, rattlesnake was more 
powerful than Uktena, who had failed when he opposed the Upper World. In the western 
Latin area, the prevalence of snakes was a powerful force in preserving African serpent 
gods. Native American mythology validated Louisiana blacks' faith in Blanc Dani. 
Missouri hoodooists went so far as to specifically designate the rattlesnake as their most 
powerful spirit, whom they honored with dances. Moreover, they referred to him as 
"Grandfather" Rattlesnake. Several plains tribes conferred the same title on the guardian 
spirit of the Missouri River, known as "Grandfather Snake." Though Da had lost his 
African name, he had gained others from those he encountered in his new home. 49 
The segmentation and organization of Native American magical specialists 
similarly mirrored African practices. For example, diviners chiefly concerned themselves 
with foretelling the course of individual lives, finding lost or stolen articles, and most 
important, diagnosing illness. Once diagnosed, clients turned to priests, more commonly 
known as "medicine men." Much of the medicine men's practice consisted of 
administering herbal remedies. They did not, however, rely simply on chemical 
properties of plants. On the contrary, illness was itself a spiritual condition, requiring 
magical cures. Brought on by an imbalance in nature, it was usually a result of the 
actions of angry animal spirits who resented being killed by humans. Plants, as friends of 
humankind, were natural allies in the battle against ill health. In conjunction with 

49 Hudson, 131-132, 136-139, 165-168; Mooney, Myths and Sacred Formulas, 
295-296; Mary Owen, "Among the Voodoos," 236-237; George E. Lankford, ed., Native 
American Legends: Southeastern Legends: Tales from the Natchez, Caddo, Biloxi, 
Chickasaw, and Other Nations, American Folklore Series, ed. W. K. McNeil (Little 
Rock: August House, 1987), 102-105. 

herbalism, Indians used sacred dances, songs, and incantations to effect cures. Priests 
also used their medicine to bring about successful hunts, love, victory in war, and 
sometimes harm to their enemies. Furthermore, like African magical specialists, they 
received pay for their services and organized themselves into societies. These societies 
typically operated for specific purposes, ranging from promoting healing and agricultural 
fertility to honoring the animals. Opposite the generally positive powers of diviners and 
medicine men, was the evil art of witchcraft. Witches were wholly malevolent and could 
work evil simply by thinking it. They felt compelled to steal time from the lives of others 
in order to extend their own, which they did by inducing madness, illness, or death or by 
eating their victims. To facilitate their malicious designs, witches could fly and transform 
themselves into cats, wolves, owls, ravens, and balls of fire. 50 

American Indians' methods of gaining magical powers also strongly resembled 
African ones. For instance, as with African and European sorcerers, Indian practitioners 
often underwent initiation ceremonies, during which they studied magic. Among the 
Creeks, small groups of prospective priests sought out older medicine men for induction 
and instruction. After secluding themselves from the rest of society, they fasted and 
ingested a large amount of "red root," inducing vomiting. Thereafter followed four days 
of instruction, which concluded with a steam bath and washing in a cold stream. Five or 
six more of these four-day sessions would follow over the succeeding months. 

50 Hudson, 174-183, 336-365; Mooney, Myths and Sacred Formulas, 303-307; 
Carmody and Carmody, 58-31; Ake Hultkrantz, The Religions of the American Indians, 
trans, by Monica Setterwall (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of 
California Press, 1979), 116-128. Other magical specialists also existed. Most notable of 
these were weather specialists, who purported to bring rain as needed. See Hudson 337- 

Prospective priests ended their instruction with two successive sessions of eight and 
twelve days, respectively. The initiation finished only after the old priest buried the 
inductees, allowing them to breath through a tube. As the novitiates waited, symbolically 
entombed in the earth, the priest burned leaves atop the "grave." Also, as in Africa, many 
Native American magical specialists were gifted with their powers. Diviners often gained 
their abilities in this way. For example, in several southeastern tribes, the younger of a 
set of twins was thought to be a born diviner. Many witches were likewise born with 
their powers, being driven to evil by vermin which inhabited their bodies. Other witches 
used a fourth method to gain their abilities. They fasted and drank concoctions of duck 
root {Sagittaria latifolia) over a seven-day period, which gave them the powers of flight 
and shape shifting. 51 

One of the more striking shared features of African and Native American beliefs 
was the concept of multiple souls. Southeastern Indians typically held to a two-soul 
model. The first of these was the "bodily soul," which gave a person life, mobility, and 
awareness. The second was the "free soul," which wandered while their owners slept, as 
did the Yoruban okan. For example, the Seminoles believed that a person's free soul left 
the body through the anus and journeyed to the north while a person slept. Dreams 
resulted. Illness was the consequence when souls refused to return. A person deserted by 
only one soul would not immediately die, however. Skilled priests could convince it to 
return if contacted in time. Once four days had passed, the situation became desperate, 
because the bodily soul might leave the body. If it did, the afflicted was beyond help. 
Furthermore, while laymen and laywomen could do little to control the movements of 

51 Hudson, 337-340, 362-363. 

their free soul, medicine men could send their souls wherever they desired. The influence 
of Indians' ideas of multiple souls is best illustrated by the cases of Braziel Robinson and 
Divinity. Both claimed to have two souls, one of which stayed put while the other 
traveled. Their two-soul model more closely resembled the American Indian concept 
than the African, in which a person typically had four or five souls. 52 

Parallels likewise existed between the practice of Native American and African 
magic. One of the most fearsome powers of black conjurers was the ability to insert 
reptiles, amphibians, and insects into their victims' bodies, causing illness and eventual 
death. Although this practice was widespread in Africa, it was just as common among 
the aboriginal Americans. Indian witches, who were themselves inhabited with vermin 
from the Under World, could harm others by transforming the food in their victims' 
stomachs into lizards or frogs. They also supposedly inserted nonliving objects, like 
cloth, charcoal, and flint, into the bodies of their enemies. 53 As with African- American 
conjure, only a more powerful sorcerer could heal victims of infestation. 54 

A more benign power shared by blacks and Native Americans was the ability to 
make magical bundles. Indians' "medicine bundles" contained a variety of holy 
materials, which were important in many communal and personal pursuits. For instance, 

"Hudson, 344; Hultkrantz, Religions of the American Indians, 131-132; Opoku, 
91-100; MacGaffey, 135-136; Bass, "Mojo," 88-89; Steiner, "Braziel Robinson," 226- 

"Sometimes, animal ghosts would take up residence in those who angered them, 
creating similar ailments. See Hudson, 172. 

54 Hudson, 360; Mooney, "Cherokee Medicine," 46, Virgil J. Vogel, American 
Indian Medicine, Civilization of the American Indian Series, vol. 95 (Norman: University 
of Oklahoma Press, 1970), 15-17. 

Creek war chiefs carried magical bundles when advancing against their enemies. Their 
importance was so great that their carriers never allowed them to touch the ground, 
placing them on special pedestals instead. Bundles were also important in religious 
ceremonies. The bundles used in wars and religious rituals were important to 
communities, but others were specific to the individual. Almost all North American 
Indians believed that each individual had a guardian spirit, whose physical representation 
was a personal medicine bundle, an idea closely resembling African explanations for the 
power of minkisi, gbo, and gregory bags. Most people obtained their guardian spirits by 
seeking them through fasting, prayer, and solitude, during which the spirits would instruct 
them in the manufacture of their medicine bundles. Some tribes allowed their members 
to buy the bundles and attendant spirits from priests or even laymen. However obtained, 
carrying medicine bundles protected their owners and allowed them to call on the spirit 
world for aid in difficulty or danger. It is no coincidence that Mande-style gregory bags 
persisted the longest in Missouri, where blacks had close contact with Indian peoples who 
employed almost identical charms. 55 

Native American beliefs did much to preserve African ideas and practices, but 
they also enriched conjure with their own distinctive contributions. One example was a 
slave conjurer known to Roland Steiner. Though a native African, the hoodooist declared 
he had learned his art from Native Americans. Among the many powers he claimed were 
the abilities to control masters and overseers, compel runaway slaves to return to their 


'Hudson, 244, 247, 252, 370, 489; Hultkrantz, Religions of the American Indians, 

owners, and guarantee his clients victory in games of chance. Unfortunately for later 
scholars, Steiner did not record how the hoodooists obtained such miraculous results. 56 
Indians' contributions were most obvious in hoodoo's magical herbalism, where 
many magical items can be traced to Native American medical practices. For instance, 
devil's snuffbox, better known as the puffball mushroom {Lycoperdon perlatum and 
related species), was a common ingredient in Georgian conjure bags, particularly those 
designed with evil in mind. In American Indian belief, it had the more beneficial 
qualities of stopping blood flow and keeping babies' skin healthy. Another plant used by 
both blacks and Native Americans was amaranth (Amaranthus retroflexus and spinosus). 
Missouri's African-Americans believed that it had the power of winning the love of 
whoever ate it when combined with pounded wheat, honey from a new hive, and a white 
dove's heart and baked into a cake. Indians valued it for its astringency and as a 
treatment of profuse menstruation. They also used it in magic associated with the Green 
Corn Ceremony. Although devil's snuffbox and amaranth took on very different uses 
when transferred from Native Americans to African- Americans, others retained their 
original uses. One of the best examples of such continuity was puccoon root (either 
Sanguinaria canadensis or Lithospermum canescens). Blacks believed that it gave luck 
when rubbed on one's body. Native Americans had similar ideas. They rubbed it upon 
their bodies, for purposes ranging from creating success in love to preventing 
convulsions. 57 

56 Steiner, "Observations on the Practice of Conjuring in Georgia," 177. 

"Steiner, "Superstitions from Central Georgia," 269; Steiner, "Observations on 
the Practice of Conjuring in Georgia," 179; Virgil Vogel, American Indian Medicine 
(Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970), 224-225, 236; Fanny D. Bergen, ed., 

In Missouri, hoodooists spoke of "conjure stones," which gave their owners the 
ability to conjure, regardless of whether they were favored by the spirit world and without 
the usual processes of initiation and instruction. Mary Owen saw only one in the course 
of her investigations, which she described as black and shaped like a kidney. If their 
strength ever lessened, it was readily restored by feeding the stone with whiskey or red 
pepper. Two of her informers estimated that there were only six in the United States. 
Though some conjurers told her that the stones came from Africa, they more likely 
originated with Native Americans. 58 Most southeastern Indians believed that certain 
stones conferred magical powers on their possessors and enabled them to foresee the 
future. Among the Cherokees, they were crystals, which reportedly came from the body 
of Uktena, the great Under World serpent. The most important of them was the Ulunsuti, 
a crest which projected from the head of the serpent. Naturally, obtaining one was very 
dangerous, but if the seeker succeeded, he would become "the greatest wonder worker of 
his tribe." 59 Even lesser crystals could attract game and members of the opposite sex, 

Animal and Plant Lore: Collected from the Oral Tradition of English Speaking Folk, 
with an Introduction by Joseph Y. Bergen, (Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin 
and Company, 1899), vol. 7, Memoirs of the American Folk-Lore Society, 78; Paul B. 
Hamel and Mary U. Chiltoskey, Cherokee Plants and Their Uses-A 400 Year History 
(Sylva: Herald Publishing Company, 1975), 23; Steven Foster and James A. Duke, A 
Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central North America, 2 nd 
ed. (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), 54-56, 155, 244. 


Despite the similarities between African- American conjure stones and Native 
American magical crystals, we cannot wholly reject the possibility that the stones were 
genuine African articles. Stones sacred to specific gods did exist in parts of West Africa. 
Nevertheless, because these stones did not appear outside of the northwestern Latin zone, 
they probably did not originate in Africa. If they had, one could expect to find them 
throughout the South. See Parrinder, 11. 


Hudson, 167. 

repel bullets, and bring favorable weather. Similarly Creek and Seminole sorcerers 
resorted to their own magic stones, called "sapiya." As was the case with Cherokees' 
crystals, they brought success in hunting, love, and other pursuits. Like African- 
Americans' conjure stones they had to be fed. Unlike blacks' stones, however, they 
turned on their owners if neglected. Even plains tribes had their own sacred stones, 
which typically resembled animals. 60 

Conjure originated in Africa, but its transformation in the United States made it 
into a truly American practice. Contact with Europeans and Native Americans sometimes 
worked against African magic and religion, ensuring that they did not survive intact in the 
New World. At the same time, the blend of peoples worked to preserve other African 
beliefs and practices and even contributed many new ideas. In this respect, the 
transformation of African- American magic followed a pattern similar to that faced by all 
immigrants to the United States: a tug-of-war between the desire to hold on to traditional 
beliefs and practices and the impossibility of recreating ancestral homelands in the New 
World. The result was a creolized hybrid of beliefs from all three cultures. Chart 3, a 
compilation of materials common in nineteenth-century conjure and their cultural origins, 
demonstrates the extent of the mixing. Though not a scientific sampling, it shows that the 
current popular conception of hoodoo as an African import is misguided. Though 
entering the colonies and later United States as an immigrant belief, its development 

^Mary Owen, "Among the Voodoos," 246-248; Hudson, 166-169; Hultkrantz, 
Religions of the American Indians, 60-62; James H. Howard, in collaboration with Willie 
Lena, Oklahoma Seminoles: Medicines, Magic, and Religion, Civilization of the 
American Indian Series, vol. 5 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1984), 88-90. 

through resistance, acculturation, and accommodation resulted in a practice as American 
as anything brought from Europe. 61 

Table 3: Some Materials Common in or Peculiar to Conjure and Their Origins 

Item with African- 
American Name 


Use in Conjure 


Goopher Dust 

Graveyard Dirt 

Used in good and evil conjure 








Divination and other uses 

European and 

Playing cards 




Rabbits' feet 


Good luck 


Parts reptiles, 
amphibians, and 


Numerous uses, but most 
commonly causing infestation of 
victims' bodies 





popular in 

Human bones, 


Protection and to magicalb 

/ affect 


fingernails, hair, 
blood, and other 
parts or byproducts 


Black cat bone 
Silver money 
Needles and pins 


Red flannel 

the person to whom they belong 

Naturally magnetic stone Protection and money drawing 




Invisibility, often for theft 

Protection from conjure 

Various, particularly causing 

Various uses, particularly 

European and 



African and 


Encloses charms, increasing their African 


For a discussion of this process, see Gomez, 1-16. 


Table 3. Continued 

Item with African- 


Use in Conjure 


American Name 



Devil's Snuff Box 

Puffball mushrooms 

Material used in malevolent 

European and 

(Lycoperdon perlatum, 



pyriforme, and others) 


Pecune or puccoon 

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria 

Good luck 



canadensis) or hoary 
puccoon (Lithospermum 


Red pepper and 

Capiscum minimum and 



Guinea pepper 

Capsicum fastigiatum, 

American and 



King of the Woods 

Spikenard (Aralia 

Various, especially anything 



involving conquering 


Snake root 

Samson snakeroot 

Various, including preventing 


(Psoralea pedunculata) 



John the Conqueror, 

Various versions, 

Various uses, particularly 

African root 

Conquer John, or 

including Solomon's 

powerful "king root of the forest" 

concept, Native 

Conjure John 

seal (Polygonatum 

American and 

multiflorum), Indian 


turnip {Arum 

medicinal plant 

tripyhllum), St. John's 


wort (Hypericum 

perforatum), and jalap 

(Ipomea jalap and 



Chewing John the 

Galangal (Alpinia 

Protection from enemies 

African root 



concept, related 

import from 
Southeast Asia 

Alligator body parts N/A 

Candles N/A 

Frizzly chickens N/A 

Kills enemies 

Used to please particular spirits 
Protection from conjure 

substitute for 
crocodile parts 




Item with African- 
American Name 


Table 3. Continued 

Use in Conjure 


Jimson burrs Thorn-apple (Datura Harms those who smell them 


Alanthus Tree of Heaven Harms those who smell them 

(Ailanthus glandulosa) 


American mandrake 
{Podophyllum peltatum) 

Used in conjure 


import from 
Southeast Asia 

European and 





American plant 



Amaranthus retroflexus Various, particularly love Native 

and spinosus American 

SOURCES: Steiner, "Superstitions from Central Georgia," 262, 269; Louis Pendleton, "Notes on Negro 
Folk-Lore and Witchcraft in the South," Journal of American Folk-Lore 3 (1890): 203; "The Religious 
Life of the Negro Slave," 822; Steiner, "Observations on the Practice of Conjuring in Georgia," 177-180; 
James C. Neal, "Legalized Crime in Florida," in Proceedings of the Florida Medical Association: Session 
of 1891 (Jacksonville: Times-Union Printing House, 1891), 49; Mary Owen, Voodoo Tales, 1 13; Mary 
Owen, "Among the Voodoos," 232, 247-248; Porteous, 51; Bibb, 25-32; Pitkin, 185-213, 260-292; Hearn, 
"New Orleans Superstitions," 843; Adams, Rawick, ed., supplement 2, vol. 2, 16-22; "Folk-Lore and 
Ethnology" 28 (1899): 1 12-1 13; Breslaw, 539; Hyatt, Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft-Rootwork, 923-924; 
Adams, Rawick, ed., supplement 2, vol. 2, 20-21; Bergen, 78-79; Hurston, Mules and Men, 279; Puckett, 
Folk Beliefs, 245-246; H. U. Lampe, Famous Voodoo Rituals & Spells: A Voodoo Handbook, new ed. 
(Minneapolis: Marlar Publishing Company, 1982), 17. Origins determined by consulting Mary Owen, 
Voodoo Tales, 1 13; Mary Owen, "Among the Voodoos," 232; Long, Spiritual Merchants, 6-8, 15, 75, 102, 
22 1 -246; Thompson, Flash of the Spirit, 1 08- 1 3 1 ; Thompson, Face of the Gods, 49-50; Gomez, 204-206; 
MacGaffey, 52; Kingsley, 446, 469; Opoku, 148; Georgia Writers' Project, Savannah Unit, Drums and 
Shadows, 43, 61, 200, 206; Puckett, Folk Beliefs, 220, 290-291; Bacon, 209; Grieve, 62-63, 101-103, 175- 
176, 316-317, 339-340, 640-642, 655-656, 707-708, 749-750, 802-807, 841-842; Opie and Tatem, 135, 
193-194; Vogel, 224-225, 299, 326-328, 354-356; Charles F. Millspaugh, American Medicinal Plants: An 
Illustrated and Descriptive Guide to Plants Indigenous to and Naturalized in the United States Which Are 
Used in Medicine (Philadelphia: John C. Yorston and Company, 1892; republication, New York: Dover 
Publications, Inc., 1974), 488; John K. Crellin and Jane Philpott, A Reference Guide to Medicinal Plants: 
Herbal Medicine Past and Present (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1990), 212-213; Hamel 
and Chiltoskey, 23, 41, 46, 51; Foster and Duke, 52-56, 63-64, 155, 244; Hudson, 166-169. 
NOTE: In general, those items listed above the two John the Conqueror roots were more common in the 
Anglo zone. Those below were more common in the Latin area. The John the Conquerors were present in 
both areas. 

Some elements of conjure originated in America, without African, European, or 
Native American precedents. For instance, the term "rootwork," common in English- 
settled South Carolina, was a creation of African- Americans, used to express one of the 

conjurers' most obvious employments. A more striking example of black American 
creativity appeared in the gods of New Orleans Voodoo. In their magic and religious 
worship, hoodooists included a group of "saints" unknown to both Catholic or African 
priests. The best known of these was "St. Expedite" or "St. Espidy," applied to for luck, 
court cases, and money drawing. Hurston added that he was especially important in cases 
involving the need for speed. Her identification is not surprising since the name 
apparently derives from a word referring to completing a task quickly. Other "saints" 
came from American history. The most important of these was Black Hawk, a leader of 
the Sauk tribe in an 1 832 war to preserve their territory against the encroachment of 
American settlers. Like African- Americans, he had suffered at the hands of whites, but 
unlike many blacks, he had taken up arms, even winning a minor victory. Earning a 
reputation as a fierce, cunning, and merciful warrior in life, he retained this reputation as 
a hoodoo saint. While some turned to him for help in their problems, others stated that he 
was "one of the old evil saints," best called on to harm others. 62 The two faces of Black 
Hawk replicate his reputation among whites as a noble savage fighting to save his home 
and a killer who supposedly mutilated the bodies of his victims. 63 

Despite the opposition and alternative beliefs encountered by conjure, it survived. 
Moreover, it remained a traditional African- American practice. As the nineteenth century 
drew to a close, it would find new opportunities in mass media and commodity culture, 
participation in which had been denied slaves. In the twentieth century, conjurers would 

62 Hyatt, Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft-Rootwork, 863. 

"Pinckney, 6; Hurston, Mules and Men, 279-280; Hyatt, Hoodoo-Conjuration- 
Witchcraft-Rootwork, 862-888; Berry, 25-52; Jacobs and Kaslow, 136-147; Long, 
Spiritual Merchants, 54. 

increasingly fade in importance, being replaced with mail order companies and hoodoo 




Throughout most of the nineteenth century, conjure was a personal affair 
conducted between hoodoo doctors and their clients. While it was practiced throughout 
the South, regional and local variations were common. By the early twentieth century, 
however, hoodoo was undergoing profound changes. First, the differences between the 
Anglo and Latin cultural areas were becoming less pronounced. Likewise, African- 
American migrants carried conjure to areas of the country where it had been rare in the 
preceding centuries. Much more important, however, was the process by which hoodoo 
became an increasingly impersonal affair. As Caroline Morrow Long put it, hoodoo was 
undergoing "commodification." 1 Old-fashioned conjurers who performed spells and 
made charms at the request of local clients were becoming rare. Twentieth-century 
practitioners were more likely to operate shops selling ready-made magical products 
shipped from hundreds of miles away. In some cases, large-scale manufacturers replaced 
conjurers altogether. Advertising their products through agents and in local and national 
newspapers, they operated as mail-order companies. 

One of the most readily identifiable changes in hoodoo was the fading importance 
of regional distinctions. Of course, some differences between the Latin and Anglo areas 
persisted. For instance, as Zora Neale Hurston learned, initiations continued to take place 

'Long, Spiritual Merchants, 99-126. 


in New Orleans as late as the 1930s. They were rare outside of the area. Similarly, 
conjurers along the Atlantic Coast were as attached to graveyard dust as their 
predecessors had been. Also, along the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico, unique 
gregory bag-style charms persisted. Known as "nation sacks," women wore them under 
their clothes against their waists. 2 Men were forbidden to touch them. Unlike Missouri 
conjure balls and bags, women filled them with whatever magical materials they needed 
at a given moment. For example, dried egg yolks were supposed to keep husbands and 
boyfriends from leaving. The peels of red onions brought general good luck. During the 
1930s, nation sacks could sometimes be found in New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama. 
They were also common in Memphis, Tennessee. In the areas initially settled by the 
English, however, they were unknown. 3 

New Orleans' reputation for Voodoo also survived the passage of time. This 
image remained so strong that the author Henry C. Castellanos asked his readers, "Who 
has not heard, in connection with the local history of New Orleans, of that mysterious and 
religious sect of fanatics, imported from the jungles of Africa and implanted into our 
midst, so well known under the appellation of Voudous?^ Moreover, the city's 
reputation for magic survives to the present. 5 

2 I have been unable to find mention of nation sacks in nineteenth-century sources. 
3 Hyatt, Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft-Rootwork, 620, 691-694, 744-888, 3293- 


"Henry C. Castellanos, New Orleans As It Was: Episodes of Louisiana Life (New 
Orleans: L. Graham & Son, Ltd., 1895), 90. 

5 Touchstone, 375-386. 

Ironically, while Voodoo's fame was at its height, its practice was undergoing a 
decline. Both Voodoo and Nanigo had lost much of their specifically religious character 
by the turn of the twentieth century, bringing them in line with conjure in the rest of the 
nation. In part, this was due to active suppression by the authorities. During the Civil 
War, the Union forces occupying New Orleans broke up gatherings, usually arresting the 
participants. After the Yankees departed, the New Orleans police took over. Unlawful 
assembly and nudity were the usual charges, but the aim was to wipe out what 
Castellanos referred to as "this disgusting organization or order, with its stupid creed and 
bestial rites." 6 In 1873, the Daily Picayune reported that Voodoo ceremonies no longer 
took place within the city limits. The only ritual still practiced was the annual St. John's 
Eve gathering on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain. After 1876, even this ceremony 
became sporadic. When it was held, its organizers geared it toward white spectators, who 
paid entrance fees and additional sums for charms, the right to witness 'secret' rituals, 
and the services of prostitutes. Nanigo faced a similar fate. In Key West, its popularity 
peaked during the 1880s and 1890s. Following the murder of a Cuban immigrant during 
a Nanigo street festival, the faith's reputation suffered and its adherents fell away. 
According to Stetson Kennedy, the last Nanigo dance was a 1923 reenactment by young 
nonbelieiver. As in New Orleans, the later ceremonies were often moneymaking 
endeavors. Ganda, one leader of the Key West branch of the religion, continued to dance 
for visiting sailors well into the twentieth century, charging them a dime per performance. 

6 Castellanos, 90. 

Once Voodoo and Naftigo had lost their distinctive religious characters, the hoodoo of the 
Latin area increasingly resembled the conjure practiced in the rest of the nation. 7 

New Orleans' Voodoo was fading, but its magical practices remained the best 
known form of African- American sorcery. As a result, its terminology spread beyond the 
confines of the areas settled by the French and Spanish. English words for magic 
workers, such as "cunning doctor" and "high man," were virtually extinct. "Rootwork," 
"goopher," and "two head" survived in the Anglo cultural zone. By the early twentieth 
century, however, "hoodoo" had spread beyond the Latin area. When Harry Middleton 
Hyatt carried out his interviews during the 1930s and 1940s, he found that "hoodoo" was 
a term used throughout the South. One of his informants described a Newport News, 
Virginia sorcerer as both a "cunjure man" and a "hoodoo man." A Georgian interviewee 
stated the case more directly, saying "Some of us call it rootworkin ', some of us call it 
witchcraft an' some of us call it hoodoo, but it's all run into de same thing." 8 The two 
had become synonyms. Nevertheless, some acknowledged the term's newness. One 
former Florida slave told Hyatt that "hoodoo" had not come into use until after 
emancipation. Despite its novelty, it became so popular that it partially displaced 
"conjure" as the favored designation for African-American magic. Zora Neale Hurston, 
who studied African- American magic in Louisiana, Florida, and Alabama, stated 
"Veaudeau is the European term for African magic practices and beliefs, but it is 

'Touchstone, 375-386; "The Voudou-' Fetish'," Daily Picayune, 25 June 1873; 
Kennedy, "Naftigo in Florida," 155. 

8 Hyatt, Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft-Rootwork, 667. The emphases are in the 

unknown to the American Negro. His own name for his practices is hoodoo." 9 She went 
on to recognize that the words "conjure" and "roots" remained popular. 10 

The two cultural zones had ceased to be major factors by the time Hyatt and 
Hurston carried out their investigations. Despite the spread of Latin terminology, 
hoodooists throughout the South had fallen into the form of conjure first practiced along 
the Atlantic seaboard. Its practitioners were no longer priests of a distinctly African- 
American syncretic faith. Instead they had become professional sorcerers, whose primary 
motivation was personal financial betterment. 

Conjure had also spread beyond the bounds of the South. Beginning in the second 
decade of the twentieth century, hundreds of thousands of African- Americans left the 
South' s rural poverty for urban life in the North. They brought their magical traditions 
with them. The migration continued for many years, peaking during the Second World 
War. By the middle of the twentieth century, conjure was no longer the sole provenance 
of the South. Folklorist Elon Kulii has recorded recent instances of hoodoo in northern 
Indiana, including cases of lizards in human bodies and the use of women's menstrual 
blood to win men's affections. Healthcare professionals throughout the United States 
have encountered patients suffering from hoodoo-related illness. For example, Renaldo J. 
Maduro reported that he treated six cases that involved conjure during approximately four 
years of postdoctoral training in clinical psychology and psychiatry in San Francisco, 

9 Hurston, "Hoodoo in America," 317. 

10 Hyatt, Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft-Rootwork, 288-289, 667-668, 896; 
Hurston, "Hoodoo in America," 3 1 7. 

California. Ronald R. Wintrob, a medical doctor, likewise encountered several cases of 
rootwork during his practice in Connecticut." 

Though the dissolving of regional distinctions and the geographic expansion of 
hoodoo changed the face of African- American magic, conjure was undergoing an even 
greater change by the turn of the century. Hoodoo was traditionally a practice in which 
conjurers made charms and performed spells at the request of individual clients. Any 
materials needed they gathered from nature. They operated out of their homes. As the 
twentieth century approached, such practices were becoming rare. By the 1930s and 
1940s, a form of conjure without conjurers had developed. Consumers, no longer clients, 
could purchase manufactured magical goods from shops or by mail. No hoodooist was 
necessary. Like so much else in American life, African-American magic was becoming 
an impersonal industry. 

The first step toward consumer conjure was the opening of "conjure shops," now 
more commonly known as "spiritual supply stores." The beginnings of such shops went 
undocumented, but evidence suggests that their precursors developed among urban free 
blacks before the Civil War. For instance, according to Robert Tallant, Marie Laveau 
kept an office for consultations in her home and a separate house for her more secretive 
Voodoo rites. George Washington Cable hinted at the existence of full-fledged 
antebellum conjure shops in his novel, 77ze Grandissimes. In one incident, a wealthy 

"Elon Kulii, "Root Doctors and Psychics in the Region," in Indiana Folklore: A 
Reader, ed. Linda Degh (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980), 120-129; 
Renaldo J. Maduro, "Hoodoo Possession in San Francisco: Notes on Therapeutic Aspects 
of Regression," Ethos 3 (1975): 425-447; Ronald M. Wintrob, "The Influence of Others: 
Witchcraft and Rootwork As Explanations of Behavior Disturbances," Journal of 
Nervous and Mental Disease 156 (1973): 318-326. See also Grossman, Land of Hope. 

African- American mistook a pharmacy for a conjure shop. Upon entering an apothecary 
owned by Joseph Frowenfeld, he requested a "ouangan," a variation of "wanga." Despite 
Frowenfeld's protestations of ignorance, his client believed that his request had simply 
been rejected. Similar mistakes recurred throughout the book. A logical inference is that 
such shops did exist. Though Cable's work is fiction, he intended it as a realistic 
portrayal and critique of the racial attitudes of New Orleans' Creoles. Just as important, 
he was a native of New Orleans. Born in 1844, he was in an excellent position to observe 
the practice of African- American magic. 12 

Whether Cable's account was trustworthy or not, conjure shops became an 
established feature of African- American society in the decades following emancipation. 
In the period immediately following the Civil War, many hoodooists traveled a wide area 
in search of clients. Some, like King Alexander, continued to do so until near the turn of 
the century. Others, however, settled in particular locales, opening offices or small shops. 
An early description of a late nineteenth-century conjure shop came from the pen of 
Daniel Webster Davis. 13 Above the door was a sign reading "j. t. sheltun, h. p.," 
advertising its occupant's employment as a "homeopath." Inside were jars filled with 
preserved snakes that he had reputedly taken from the bodies of conjure victims. Mr. 
Sheltun also displayed a variety of dried herbs and ready-made charms designed to 

12 Long, Spiritual Merchants, xv-xviii; Tallant, Voodoo in New Orleans, 65-66; 
Robert Tallant, The Voodoo Queen (New York: Putnam, 1956; reprint, Gretna: Pelican 
Publishing Company, 2000), 131-133, 147; Cable, Grandissimes, 123, 147-156, 291-293, 

13 The year of Davis' visit to the shop was not recorded, though in 1898 he wrote 
that it occurred "many years ago." Daniel Davis, 251. 

prevent conjuration. Davis further described such shops as generally dark, the better to 
unnerve clients. 14 

By the 1930s and 1940s, shops like the one owned by J. T. Sheltun were common 
in urban areas. While working for the Florida Writers' Project, Zora Neale Hurston 
discovered one in Jacksonville, Florida. She described it as permeated with the smell of 
incense. Its shelves were filled with boxes and bottles of roots, herbs, oils, powders, and 
other charms. Unlike Sheltun's shop, it did not emphasize the frightening aspects of 
conjure. Instead, it stressed the benefits of magic. Above its door, hung a sign, reading, 
"Through the Days of Labor and Nights of Rest, The Charms of Fairy Stones will Keep 
you Blest." 15 The business, located on the 400 block of Broad Street, was in the heart of 
the city's African- American section. It reportedly earned its owner thousands of dollars 
each year, a remarkable fact since Hurston had visited during the Great Depression. 16 
Other conjure shops opened during this period, many of which doubled as drug stores. 
The Cracker Jack Drug Store of New Orleans was the most famous of these. Founded in 
1 897 as a pharmacy, it had become a hoodoo supply store by the time Hyatt interviewed 
area blacks. 17 

l4 Mary Owen, Voodoo Tales, 171; Daniel Davis, 251. 

15 Zora Neale Hurston, Federal Writers Project in Florida, "The Negro in Florida, 
1528-1940," P. K. Yonge Library of Florida History, University of Florida, Gainesville, 

16 The store visited by Hurston was likely the Eureka Store. See Kennedy, 
Palmetto Country, 166-169. 

17 Hurston,"The Negro in Florida." 117-118; Long, Spiritual Merchants, 143-157; 
Hyatt, Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft-Rootwork, 1625-1626, 3224. 

Conjure shops remain a prominent part of many African- American communities 
today. For many years, "Master Bishop" F. L. Robinson, D. D. has offered his services as 
a "spiritual advisor" to the people of Micanopy, Florida, from his shop, Robinson Hall. 
Rondo's Temple Sales of Atlanta, Georgia, has supplied its customers' magical needs 
since 1940. Stanley Drug Company of Houston, Texas, a combination spiritual supply 
store and pharmacy, has been in operation since 1923. Not all conjure shops are survivals 
from an earlier era. For instance, Thomas "Pop" Williams opened the Eye of the Cat with 
three business partners in 1985 in Columbia, South Carolina. Like the conjure shops of 
the 1930s and 1940s, its shelves are packed with herbs, oils, and many other magical 
items. Williams performs consultations from his office in the back of the store. When 
several customers arrive to speak with Williams, they can take advantage of the waiting 
room adjacent to his office, where a television keeps them entertained. 18 

Many shops were simply a way for conjurers to make their charms and spells 
more readily available, thereby increasing their income. On the other hand, one did not 
have to be a practitioner to open a hoodoo store. Donald Miller and his son, Richard, are 
excellent examples. Donald Miller opened a pharmacy, now known as Miller's Rexall, in 
Atlanta, Georgia, in 1960. Miller is not an African- American. On the contrary, his 
ancestors were Russian Jews, who immigrated to America in the early 1900s to escape 
service in the czar's armies. Donald Miller opened his business as a pharmacy serving 
Atlanta's African- American community. He gradually turned to spiritual goods in the 

18 F. L. Robinson, proprietor of Robinson Hall, interview by author, 1 1 January 
2002, Micanopy, FL, notes, personal collection, Birmingham, AL; Long, Spiritual 
Merchants, 143-157, 253-261; Thomas Williams, proprietor of Eye of the Cat, interview 
by author, 25 October 2001, Columbia, SC, notes, personal collection, Birmingham, AL. 

face of high customer demand. Though the elder Miller will study clients' problems, 
pray, and prepare charms for their remedy, his son does not believe in the power of 
hoodoo. Felix Figueroa, owner of the F and F Botanica and Candle Shop of New 
Orleans, likewise expresses skepticism. Though many of his customers call the business 
a "hoodoo shop," he maintains that it was open to all religions. 19 Figueroa, however, is a 
Baptist, who describes his store as "a business to make a living." 20 

As conjure shops were springing up in many southern cities, an even newer form 
of conjure arose in the form of large-scale manufacturers who sold magical supplies by 
mail. Hoodooists and conjure shops provided the impetus. Traditionally, root doctors 
gathered their materials from nature. By the early twentieth century, however, many 
purchased their herbs and other botanical goods from mail-order companies geared 
toward the home remedy market. They likewise ascribed magical power to some 
preexisting manufactured goods. Jockey Club Cologne was the best example. Though it 
originated as a personal hygiene product, by the 1920s, it had become a magical tool that 
believers expected to bring them love and work. 21 

Conjurers and their shops further demonstrated the viability of postal sales by 
operating their own mail-order businesses. One of the earliest known to have done so 

"During my time in Figueroa' s shop, I met an adherent of Santeria and some 
Spiritualists, as well as people simply looking for magical aids. 

20 Richard Miller, co-proprietor of Miller's Rexall, interview by author, 7 April 
2001, Atlanta, GA, notes, personal collection, Birmingham, AL; Long, Spiritual 
Merchants, 153-154; Felix Figueroa, proprietor of F and F Botanica and Candle Shop, 
interview by author, 15 November 2001, New Orleans, LA, notes and audio recording, 
personal collection, Birmingham, AL. 

21 Long, Spiritual Merchants, 100-102; Hurston, Mules and Men, 277-280. 

was Julius P. Caesar of New Orleans. Specializing in matters of love, he eventually ran 
foul of a city ordinance forbidding the sale of charms. By the 1920s, Dr. Buzzard was 
also involved in mail-order conjure. James McTeer, a white sheriff who was pursuing the 
conjurer for dispensing medicine without a license, reported that he once destroyed 
$1,500.00 in postal money orders when he discovered that they could be used in evidence 
against him. Pierre McGowan, son of a rural mail carrier who served the area in which 
Dr. Buzzard lived, confirmed that much of his income came from mail-order customers. 
Perhaps Dr. Buzzard was himself a patron of mail-order hoodoo. P. H. Washington of 
Beaufort, South Carolina, better known as "Dr. Eagle," claimed Dr. Buzzard "sent to me 
for all the high priced roots." 22 Carolyn Morrow Long, has compiled further cases of 
mail-order conjurers throughout the United States, including Virginia, Alabama, Illinois, 
and New York. 23 

With commercial organic and manufactured goods already entering the hoodoo 
market and the feasibility of mail-order conjure established, it was only a matter of time 
before existing companies incorporated hoodoo into their product lines. The first known 
manufacturer of black-oriented spiritual supplies was DeLaurence, Scott and Company, 
now known as the L. W. DeLaurence Company. DeLaurence, the founder, began his 

James Edwin McTeer, High Sheriff, with an Introduction by William L. Rhodes, 
Jr. (Columbia: JEM Company, 1970), 34. 

23 Long, Spiritual Merchants, 130-143; Hyatt, Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft- 
Rootwork, 1640-1650; "Husbands and Lovers Are Voodoo Sage's Specialty," New 
Orleans Times-Democrat, 29 October 1902, 10; Loudell F. Snow, "Mail Order Magic: 
The Commercial Exploitation of Folk Belief," Journal of the American Folklore Institute 
16 (1979): 44-73; Pierre McGowan, The Gullah Mailman, illustrated by Nancy Ricker 
Rhett (Raleigh: Pentland Press, Inc., 2000), 92; McTeer, Low Country Witch Doctor 23- 
McTeer, High Sheriff, 18-41. 

career as a Chicago-based hypnotist and self-proclaimed adept at Eastern mysticism 
during the late nineteenth century. His early products included several books on 
European magic, Jewish kabbalah, Far Eastern occultism, and hypnotism. By the first 
decades of the twentieth century, he had moved into the African- American market, selling 
herbs, amulets, candles, charms, and books to blacks throughout the United States. For 
other manufacturers, the occult was only a part of their product lines. Two companies 
founded in the 1920s, the Valmor Company of Chicago, Illinois and Keystone 
Laboratories of Memphis, Tennessee, sold hoodoo supplies as well as laxatives, 
cosmetics, and other personal hygiene products. Unlike DeLaurence, both companies 
began their existence as businesses aimed toward an African-American market. Several 
similar companies appeared in succeeding years and continue to do so today. In 1991, 
Martin Mayer founded Indio Products, Inc., currently the world's largest manufacturer 
and supplier of spiritual supplies. 24 

Manufactured conjure differed widely from traditional hoodoo. Most notably, few 
of those involved were part of African- American culture. Carolyn Morrow Long 
undertook an exhaustive study of spiritual supply shops for her book, Spiritual 
Merchants. Of the companies she investigated, she was able to identify eighteen of their 
founders by race. Only two were black. Many founders of both manufacturing 
companies and conjure shops were recent Jewish immigrants, who had fled Europe in the 
face of rising antisemitism. In America, they encountered a less virulent form of 
prejudice that nevertheless pushed them toward African- American society as a source of 
income. Catherine Yronwode, owner of the Lucky Mojo Curio Company, reports that a 


Long, Spiritual Merchants, 187-219, 261-263. 

cousin had such a history. Leaving Germany in the days before the Second World War, 
he arrived in the United States with the intention of practicing pharmacy. He opened 
shop in a black community. Because of high demand, he soon began selling spiritual 
supplies. 25 

As could be expected from whites using African- American "superstition" to make 
a living, most manufacturers paid little attention to the materials used in traditional 
charms. For example, nineteenth-century conjurers predominantly worked with a variety 
of roots, animal parts, and other naturally-occurring materials. Mail-order manufacturers 
introduced new forms of magical products. Incense, magical soaps, and a vast array of 
oils took their place alongside old-fashioned conjure bags, goopher dust, and powders. 
More recently, aerosol sprays have promised supernatural benefits to their users. Many of 
these items, however, do not employ traditional magical materials. According to a 1951 
article in Ebony, New Orleans "luck water" was nothing more than water colored with 
Easter egg dye. "Black Cat oil" was motor oil, with soot sometimes added for color. 
"Love oil" was perfumed olive oil. Recent products follow similar rules. A can of 
"Quick Money" aerosol spray obtained by the author appears to be a cheap air freshener, 
transformed into a spiritual product by its label. Even when mail-order companies have 
sold supposedly traditional favorites, they often differed from their earlier versions. For 
instance, nineteenth-century African- Americans recognized John the Conqueror as the 


Long, Spiritual Merchants, 161-163; Yronwode, interview by author. 

plant more commonly known as Solomon's Seal. Twentieth-century manufacturers, 
however, have usually substituted the roots of the jalap plant, a native of Mexico. 26 

Many mail-order manufacturers also entered the publishing industry. Since the 
Civil War, African- American literacy had been on the rise, and manufacturers were quick 
to take advantage of this fact. The result was books aimed at those interested in 
practicing hoodoo. One of the first occult books specifically marketed to black 
Americans was Aunt Sally 's Policy Players ' Dream Book which first appeared in 1 889. It 
consisted primarily of a list of dream subjects, each of which was assigned particular 
lucky numbers for gambling purposes. Players of bolita, a popular game of chance that 
originated in Cuba, were particularly fond of such books. A researcher for the Federal 
Writers' Project reported that stores "in Negro neighborhoods are filled with books on the 
subject; even two books alleged to have been writings of Moses inadvertently left out of 
his compilation of the works in the Bible are included." 27 Not all such works focused on 
gambling. The Life and Works of Marie Laveau, which was in existence by the 1920s, 
includes a variety of spells, including ones to "uncross" the cursed, to secure financial 
success, and to win love. The writer professed to be Marie Laveau herself, though this 
was almost certainly false. Nevertheless, its authorial claims guaranteed its popularity in 
New Orleans. By the time Zora Neale Hurston investigated hoodoo in the city, many 

26 Mary Owen, Voodoo Tales, 113; Tyler, 164-166; Long, "John the Conqueror," 
47-53; Clayton, 61. 

"Martin Richardson, "Bolita," in "Negro Folk Lore and Custom," ed. John A. 
Simms, in "Florida Folklore & Customs," ed. Federal Writers Project, 17 August 1937, P. 
K. Yonge Library of Florida History, University of Florida, Gainesville. 

practitioners recited spells from the book as if they had personally learned them from the 
great Voodoo queen. 28 

In some cases, mail-order companies' goods introduced new influences into 
African- American conjure. On a national level, they helped break down regional 
distinctions by providing standardized products across the United States. Sonny Boy 
Products, originally based in Miami, Florida, and later in Birmingham, Alabama, has long 
sold its goods to customers as far away as California. Similarly, Robinson Hall of 
Micanopy, Florida, stocks a selection of Indio Products oils, which are manufactured in 
Los Angeles, California. 29 

Books played an even greater role in dissolving local idiosyncrasies. For instance, 
while the use of candles in conjure was usually confined to areas settled by the Catholic 
French and Spanish, it has now spread throughout the South. This diffusion has been 
largely because of books like Henri Gamache's The Master Book of Candle Burning, an 
instruction book explaining methods of burning candles to achieve a variety of personal 
aims. First published in New York in 1942, its publishers sold it throughout the United 
States. It continues in print today. Books like The Life and Times of Marie Laveau and 

28 Long, Spiritual Merchants, 120-126; Aunt Sally 's Policy Players ' Dream Book 
(New York: H. J. Wehman, 1889; reprint, Los Angeles: Indio Products, Inc.); Hurston, 
"Hoodoo in America," 328-357. A revised edition of the Life and Works of Marie 
Laveau is now in print under the title, Original Black and White Magic. Another work 
has appropriated the former title. See Marie Laveau, Original Black and White Magic 
(Los Angeles: International Imports, 1991), and Raul Canizares, The Life and Works of 
Marie Laveau: Gris-gris, Cleansings, Charms, Hexes (Plainview: Original Publications, 

"Catherine Yronwode, "Sonny Boy Products at the Egypt Candle Store," Lucky 
Mojo Curio Company Website, 1995-2002, <> 
(18 June 2002); Robinson, interview by author. 

the more recent Famous Voodoo Rituals & Spells, by H. U. Lampe, have similarly spread 
the lore of New Orleans Voodoo across the nation. Other books combined hoodoo 
traditions from throughout the South into a single work, further undermining regional 
distinctions. Papa Jim Magical Herb Book is a recent work in this tradition. Among the 
more than two hundred botanical products which filled its pages were Adam and Eve 
root, formerly popular in the Latin cultural area; Guinea pepper, usually found in areas 
settled by the English; and John the Conqueror, common in both areas. Older works in 
the same vein were Henri Gamache's The Magic of Herbs, first published in the 1940s, 
and Lewis de Claremont's Legends of Incense, Herb & Oil Magic, which appeared in 
1938. 30 

Mail-order companies also introduced influences from outside the United States 
into African-American hoodoo. As with mail-order's effect on regional distinctions, 
books most clearly demonstrated the new influences. Catherine Yronwode, a 
contemporary rootworker, has compiled a list of books sold by King Novelty, a sister 
company of Valmor, in 1942. Among those listed were Godfrey Selig's Secrets of the 
Psalms and The 6' h and T h Books of Moses. The former was a Kabbalistic text, first 
published in seventeenth-century Pennsylvania. Its formulas rested on the belief that 
properly invoking God, angels, or demons could bring about the will of petitioners. The 

30 Henri Gamache, The Master Book of Candle Burning, rev. ed. (Plainview: 
Original Publications, 1998); Laveau, 5-46; H. U. Lampe, Famous Voodoo Rituals & 
Spells: A Voodoo Handbook, new ed. (Minneapolis: Marlar Publishing Company, 1982); 
Papa Jim and James e Sickafus, Papa Jim Magical Herb Book, 2 nd ed. (San Antonio: 
Papa Jim U, Inc., 1985); Henri Gamache, The Magic of Herbs Throughout the Ages 
(Plainview: Original Publications, 1985); Lewis de Claremont, Legends of Incense, Herb 
& Oil Magic, revised ed. (Arlington: Dorene Publishing, 1966); Long, Spiritual 
Merchants, 125. 

6' h and T h Books of Moses, the most popular conjure text during the 1930s and 1940s, 
was a similar collection of incantations, accompanied by a selection of magical seals. 
More than just Kabbala entered the field of hoodoo in the early twentieth century. The 
Orient, long defined by white Americans and Europeans as exotic and magical, came into 
vogue. 31 For instance, Lauren William DeLaurence published The Great Book of Magical 
Art, Hindu Magic, and East Indian Occultism in 1 902. In this book, a photograph of 
DeLaurence showed him dressed as a Hindu mystic. Lewis de Claremont's Legends of 
Incense, Herb & Oil Magic, had a similar picture, this time an "artist's conception" of the 
author, depicting him wearing a turban and colonial military uniform. Incense burned at 
his right hand. Behind him stood a spirit guide. De Claremont's work did not disappoint, 
discussing Far Eastern incenses alongside European spells and herbs from African- 
American hoodoo. 32 

After the advent of the hoodoo manufacturer, conjure shops often evolved into 
retailers of the products of the larger companies, only occasionally producing their own 
products. Dr. Eagle, who operated his own conjure shop during the middle years of the 
twentieth century, stated, "We buy straight from the factory in Baltimore now. They have 

3 'For more on the idea of the Oriental, see Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New 
York: Vintage Books, 1979). 

32 Yronwode, "Hoodoo;" Long, Spiritual Merchants, 122; Catherine Yronwode, 
"Secrets of the Psalms: The Kabbalist Influence on Hoodoo," Lucky Mojo Curio 
Company Website, 1995-2002, <> (18 
June 2002); Godfrey A. Selig, The Secrets of the Psalms, new ed. (Arlington: Dorene 
Publishing Company, 1 982); The $ h and T h Books of Moses, or Moses ' Magical Spirit 
Art, new ed. (Arlington: Dorene Publishing Company, Inc.); Lauren William DeLaurence, 
The Great Book of Magical Art, Hindu Magic, and East Indian Occultism (1902); 
Claremont, 59-69, 82-89. According to Long, Spiritual Merchants, 118-119, Eastern 
beliefs became so strongly associated with hoodoo during the first half of the twentieth 
century, that some conjure shops came to be known as "Hindu stores." 

direct contact with Egypt and the Orient." 33 Dr. Eagles' suppliers probably deceived him 
about their products' origins. More than likely, they manufactured them on their 
premises. In any case, his statement illustrated the rapidity with which conjure shops 
turned to mail-order manufacturers to stock their businesses. Though many have 
continued to carry such traditional goods as conjure bags and roots, most of their 
inventory has typically consisted of manufactured goods. In an article on Voodoo for 
Ebony, Edward T. Clayton accompanied his text with several photographs, one of which 
depicts spiritual supplies available at New Orleans hoodoo drugstores. Of the eight items 
shown, at least four were manufactured items. In 1967 and 1968, David J. Winslow 
visited the Cavalry Religious and Occult Store in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Like many 
of its ilk, the shop had a distinctive odor, "sandalwood and other exotic incenses" in this 
case. 34 Its proprietor, Bishop E. E. Everett, B.S., a native of North Carolina, was pastor of 
the Cavalry Spiritual Temple. It was affiliated with the Apostolic Church of Christ in 
God. Though Bishop Everett called himself a "spiritual advisor," his business differed 
little from the conjure shops of Florida, Louisiana, or South Carolina. Commercially- 
bottled "graveyard dust," human figures made of wax, various oils, bath salts, and aerosol 
sprays graced the shelves. Among his best sellers were candles and The 6 th and 7 th Books 
of Moses? 5 

33 McTeer, High Sheriff, 35. 

34 David J. Winslow, "Bishop E. E. Everett and Some Aspects of Occultism and 
Folk Religion in Negro Philadelphia," Keystone Folklore Quarterly 14 (1969): 61. 

35 Clayton, 56; Winslow, 59-80. No conjure shop that I have visited differs in any 
notable respect from that operated by Bishop Everett, with the exception that many 
proprietors are not themselves practitioners of magic. 

In the nineteenth century, conjurers' reputations spread by word of mouth. 

Success, or at least a reputation for it, was a prerequisite. For manufacturers and some 

conjure shops, however, word of mouth was not enough to ensure financial prosperity. 

They needed a new marketing strategy. Their most basic form of promotion was the 

catalog. Most manufacturers and many conjure shops produced them, and they could be 

picked up at the business or requested by mail or phone. They did more than just list the 

items available by mail. Like most sales catalogs, they also promoted the items. For 

example, in a recent Miller's Rexall Catalog, an advertisement for "Root of Life Oil, New 

Orleans Class" read, in part, "ROOT OF LIFE OIL is said to have been used by 

CONJURE MEN, VOODOOS, and SPIRITUALISTS for anointing their bodies and 

LUCK CHARMS. They believe that the oil would drive away EVIL SPIRITS and bring 

GOOD LUCK, LOVE, and SUCCESS." 36 Such advertisements were usual for hoodoo 

catalogs. A few have been more creative. Sonny Boy Products currently sells a 

spellbook that doubles as a catalog. A representative selection is spell eight, a ritual 

designed to keep husbands, wives, and lovers from adulterous affairs. The first step is to 

write Psalm 37 on a piece of white unlined paper. It must then be moistened with "Glory 

Water," a Sonny Boy product. Next, one should bathe for seven days in the company's 

"Love Drawing Bath." Finally, success remained uncertain unless the customer wore 

Sonny Boy's "Strong Love Cologne" when with their loved one. 37 

36 Donald Miller and Richard Miller, Miller's Catalog (Atlanta, Georgia: By the 
author, 87 Broad Street, ca. 2001), 12. The emphases are in the original. 

i7 Sonny Boy Blue Book Guide to Success, Power, 6 th ed. (Birmingham, Alabama: 
By the author, 1 715 3 rd Avenue N, 2000), 9. See also Mike Rondo and Darren Rondo, 
Rondo 's Temple Sales Co. Catalog (Atlanta, Georgia: By the author, 171 Mitchell Street, 
SW, 2000-2001). 


Manufacturers also employed agents to ply their wares. Black-oriented cosmetic 
companies had earlier proven the success of this technique. Because many mail-order 
companies incorporated both beauty merchandise and conjure supplies into their product 
lines, their owners were well aware of the concept's profitability. Among the 
manufacturers employing local dealers were Valmor and Keystone. The latter recruited 
its agents through the Church God in Christ and newspaper advertisements. Local dealers 
served a second purpose by providing their employers with information on local beliefs 
and product demand. 38 

Many manufacturers also took marketing cues from the proprietary medicines 
industry. Proprietary medicines, also know as patent medicines, were extremely popular 
in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In some ways, patent medicine 
resembled both traditional and manufactured conjure. For instance, both conjurers and 
vendors of patent medicine adopted the title of "Doctor," regardless of their 
qualifications. Titles sold products. Likewise, makers of patent medicines and hoodoo 
supply companies frequently credited God with their products' efficacy. For example, 
Dr. Muncy, maker of a kidney cure, reported that God had revealed the formula to him. 
Others quoted Bible verses on their products' packaging. Most important, both hoodoo 
manufacturers and proprietary medical companies sold products without any 

38 Long, Spiritual Merchants, 194, 199-201,203-204. See also Hyatt, Hoodoo- 
Conjuration- Witchcraft-Rootwork, 1 075- 1 088 . 

scientifically-proven beneficial qualities. The application of their techniques to the 

spiritual supplies industry was a natural development. 39 

Spiritual supply manufactures and conjure shops adopted two marketing 
techniques from patent medicine. Like black-oriented cosmetic companies, owners of 
patent medicines used agents to promote their nostrums. Since colonial days, these 
agents, or even the proprietors themselves, traveled the nation providing public 
spectacles. These might take the form of plays, juggling acts, musical performances, or a 
variety of other attention-getting devices. All incorporated a demonstration of the 
medicines being sold. Most hoodoo agents did not employ large scale spectacles, 
choosing low-key agents, instead. Nevertheless, there were exceptions. When Harry 
Middleton Hyatt interviewed Herman Henry, he learned of a man calling himself "Dr. 
Buzzard," who performed feats of magic before crowds of hundreds before selling 
magical goods to them. 40 Hyatt commented that such traveling magicians were common 
a generation before his interviews. Similarly, "Black Herman" Rucker, an African- 
American stage magician, published works on hoodoo and other forms of 

39 James Harvey Young, The Toadstool Millionaires: A Social History of Patent 
Medicines in America before Federal Regulation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 
1961), 144-244; James Harvey Young, American Self-Dosage Medicines: An Historical 
Perspective (Lawrence: Coronado Press, 1974), 1-31. 

^According to Hyatt, this Dr. Buzzard was neither the original white conjurer or 
the later Stephaney Robinson. See Hyatt, Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft-Rootwork, 

supernaturalism. His acts, performed across the United States, helped promote his 
book. 41 

The influence of patent medicines is much clearer in mass media marketing. 
Beginning in the early eighteenth century, advertisements for proprietary medicines 
appeared in periodicals. By the late nineteenth century, virtually every newspaper carried 
them. A typical example was a notice for Warner's Safe Kidney and Liver Cure, which 
appeared in the Key West Democrat in 1882. Below a drawing depicting an African 
gathering herbs, the text proclaimed that "95 Per Cent of all diseases arise from deranged 
kidneys and liver." It went on to promise that for "the innumerable troubles caused by 
unhealthy Kidneys, Liver, and Urinary Organs; for the distressing Disorders of Women; 
for Malaria, and for physical derangements, generally, this great remedy has no equal." 42 
Black-oriented periodicals carried similar sales pitches. For instance, the Chicago 
Defender, a nationally-distributed African- American newspaper, printed advertisements 
for Professor J. H. Swayne's Lone Star Tea during the 1920s. It claimed to be even more 
indispensable to good health than was Warner's Safe Kidney and Liver Cure. A money- 
back guarantee supported its proprietors' claims that it was a "remarkable remedy for 
Rheumatism, Liver, Kidney, Bladder, Stomach Troubles, and Lost Manhood." 43 A line 

41 Young, Toadstool Millionaires, 190-202; Michael A. Flannery, "Good for Man 
or Beast: American Patent Medicines from 1865 to 1938," Alabama Heritage, Winter 
2001, 10-11; Hyatt, Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft-Rootwork, 4514; Long, Spiritual 
Merchants, 124-125; Herman Rucker, Black Herman 's Secrets of Magic, Mystery, and 
Legerdemain (New York: Dorene Publishing, 1938). 

42 "Wamer's Safe Kidney & Liver Cure," Key West Democrat, 29 April 1882. 

43 "Why Be Sick!" The Chicago Defender, 17 January 1920, 2. "Lost manhood" 
was a polite euphemism for impotence. 

drawing of a healthy, muscular man drove the point home. Such claims were no more 
fantastic than the properties attributed to spiritual products. 44 

By the end of the nineteenth century, pitches for magical products took their place 
alongside advertisements for patent medicines in African- American newspapers. One of 
the first appeared in the March 11, 1898 issue of the Alabama Time-Piece. It was a 
simple notice that M. P. Fowler had rods for detecting gold and silver for sale. Over 
time, the impact of patent medicines began to grow more evident. By the early decades 
of the twentieth century, The Chicago Defender was publishing several magic-oriented 
advertisements. 45 For instance, on January 17, 1920, Lucky Star, a hoodoo manufacturer, 
pitched its incense. According to the advertisement, the practice of burning incense "has 
never been without results ... the disinfecting, deodorizing and perfumizing vapors thus 
produced are, and always were, highly conducive to health and happiness." 46 One of the 
best illustrations of the link between patent medicine and consumer hoodoo was the case 
of the Last Chance Medicine Company, which advertized in The Chicago Defender in 
1921. Despite proclaiming that its products were medical and eschewing any mention of 
luck, magic, or the like, it nevertheless advertized "a full line of John the Conqueror 
Root, Eve and Adam Root, Five Finger Grass, Orris or Love Root, Samson Snake Root, 

^Young, American Self- Dosage Medicines, 1 ; "Why Be Sick!" 2. 

45 According to Caroline Morrow Long, The Chicago Defenders' first 
advertisement for the supernatural was published in 1910. Nine years later, the first 
advertisement for products traditionally associated with hoodoo appeared. Long, 
Spiritual Merchants, 130. 


Interesting Facts," The Chicago Defender, 17 January 1920, 2. 

Sacred Powder, and Holy Sandalwood and hundreds of others." 47 Though rare before 
1920, such advertisements were plentiful by the end of the decade. 

The spiritual products industry also learned from the failures of the patent 
medicine companies. In the first few years of the twentieth century, proprietary 
medicines remained free of government regulation. Since the late nineteenth century, 
however, they had been under attack by social activists for their questionable value. 
According to muckraker journalists, like Samuel Hopkins Adams and E. W. Kemble, 
makers of proprietary medicine were perpetrating fraud by selling useless or even 
dangerous nostrums to unsuspecting customers who believed their fantastic claims. 
Beginning with the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, the federal government required 
companies to print their products' ingredients on their labels. A major loophole was that 
the law only applied to ingredients listed in the official United States Pharmacopoeia or 
National Formulary. Not until a patent medicine named Elixir Sulfanilamide claimed 
over one hundred lives in 1937 did the federal government take a more aggressive stance. 
In 1938, Congress passed the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. Among its 
provisions, it placed all medicines under government oversight, required proprietors to 
prove the safety of their products, and allowed the government to stop false claims by 
patent medicines without proving fraud. Many proprietary medicine companies, unable 
or unwilling to comply with the new law, closed down. Gone were the days when 

47 "Roots & Herbs of All Kinds Bought & Sold," The Chicago Defender, 10 
September 1921,3. 

nostrums, like Warner's Safe Kidney and Liver Cure and Professor J. H. Swayne's Lone 
Star Tea, could claim to cure virtually any ailment. 48 

The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act may have dealt a serious blow to 
patent medicines, but hoodoo manufacturers and retailers found a way around the law. 
They had long faced the threat of prosecution under charges of mail fraud, medical 
malpractice, and a variety of local laws forbidding the sale of charms. The easiest way to 
avoid legal trouble was simply to avoid making any claims for their products. To do so 
while continuing to attract customers was a vexing problem. The solution was to 
describe products' "alleged" powers, a practice occasionally employed even before the 
passage of the 1938 law. For example, Hyatt reported that he encountered circulars sold 
by two hoodoo manufacturers carrying the disclaimer, "We make no preternatural claims 
on any of these products and sell them merely as curios." 49 Others incorporated the 
disclaimer into their product descriptions. Folklorist Loudell Snow's "Mail Order 
Magic" included an undated reproduction of an advertisement for "the Glowing Black 
Cat Talisman," produced by an Indiana spiritual manufacturer. In its product description 
it reported that, the "alleged BLACK CAT BONE is said to be very magnetic and 
powerful," and for a mere $35.00, customers could obtain a "REPLICA OF THE 
PUBLISHED IN BOOKLET FORM." 50 Manufacturers and conjure shops continue the 

48 Young, Toadstool Millionaires, 205-244; Flannery, 16-17; Young, American 
Self-Dosage Medicines, 25-3 1 . 

49 Hyatt, Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft-Rootwork, 1075; 

50 Snow, "Mail-Order Magic," 47. 

practice today. In 2000, Rondo' Temple Sales Company published a catalog with the 
disclaimer, "The publishers of this book wish to have it understood that the statements 
made are not to be taken as facts, but only as things people do and believe. We make no 
claim to these rituals being of help to anyone." 51 The company nevertheless offers a list 
of products and their uses, sometimes backing them with testimonials. 52 

Despite the decline in traditional conjure, one would be wrong to assume that 
commodification was a necessarily negative development. As George Ritzer has pointed 
out in The McDonaldization of Society, consumerism brings important advantages to 
producers and buyers. First, spiritual products guaranteed increased efficiency for both 
parties. Neither had to undertake lengthy rituals nor spend time searching for herbs in the 
forest. On the contrary, conjurers and customers alike could simply order ready-made 
magical items straight from manufacturers. Individuals in need of a quick fix need only 
step into the nearest spiritual supply store to gain instant gratification. Just as important, 
the availability of similar oils, floor washes, candles, and other items throughout the 
United States helped standardize conjure, making costs easily calculable and products 
more uniform. By the early decades of the twentieth century, buyers could reasonably 
expect to receive consistent levels of quality and quantity when they made a purchase, 

5 'Rondo and Rondo, 2. 

52 Long, Spiritual Merchants, 127-137; McTeer, Low Country Witch Doctor, 23; 
Snow, "Mail Order Magic," 47, 51-52; Rondo and Rondo, 25-29. 

regardless of where they lived or whether they visited a conjure shop or ordered from a 
catalog. 53 

While gaining efficiency and uniformity, conjure lost its personal nature. Shops 
selling ready-made charms eliminated customers' need to individually interact with 
conjurers. At any rate, shops frequently did not employ practitioners. Consumers, 
however, need not even enter a shop. They could order through the mail, buying products 
which had never come in contact with a professional hoodooist. With mass advertising, 
even the importance of reputation declined. In some cases, the manufacturers went so far 
as to discount the effectiveness of their products in efforts to avoid legal troubles. An 
impersonal form of conjure without conjurers had developed. 

Although conjure shops and manufacturers had permanently transformed African- 
American supernaturalism, some elements have remained constant. First, spiritual 
products performed the same motivational function as they did for their traditional 
forebears. During the nineteenth-century, someone like Henry Bibb might visit a conjurer 
to purchase a root harvested from the forest to prevent beatings by an unjust master. In 
the twentieth century, an African- American was more likely to consult a catalog and 
order a "Job Kit" of manufactured items to help him or her keep or get a good job. Both 
individuals were concerned with improving their employment, but the situation and 
products had changed. Similarly, during the late nineteenth century, Henry F. Pyles 

53 George Ritzer, The McDonaldization of Society, New Century ed. (Thousand 
Oaks: Pine Forge Press, 2000), 11-16. For other relevant works on consumerism and 
commodification, see Paul R. Mullins, Race and Affluence: An Archaeology of African 
American and Consumer Culture (New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers, 
1999), and Grant McCracken, Culture and Consumption: New Approaches to the 
Symbolic Character of Consumer Goods and Activities (Bloomington and Indianapolis: 
Indiana University Press, 1988) 104-117. 

thought he had to purchase a mixture of pepper, wool, "Pammy Christy beans," and rusty 
iron in a bag tied with horsehair and soaked in whisky to win a woman's love. Had he 
lived in the late twentieth century, he could have simply sent for a "Love Pentacle," an 
amulet from the ancient Kabbalistic Key of Solomon the King. Mail-order companies in 
no way decreased the versatility of hoodoo. Luck, love, money, protection, and revenge 
could all be had with manufactured magic. 54 

Magical commodities also continued to follow the same rules as traditional 
charms and spells. The principle of contagion was often evident. For instance, according 
to the Sonny Boy Blue Book Guide to Success, Power, customers could keep unwanted 
people out of their cars by using "Cast Off Evil" incense and bath, preventing theft and 
driving away undesirable passengers. Buyers should sprinkle the incense on the floor 
mats and apply the bath to the steering wheel using a white cloth. These uses of Cast Off 
Evil items were examples of contagion because of their use as repellents for those who 
approached within an unspecified area of influence. Several other spells from the Sonny 
Boy Blue Book Guide used written names, images "captured" in mirrors, and objects once 
in contact with customers' or their enemies' bodies for their contagious properties. 55 

Likewise, the principle of sympathy remained an important part of manufactured 
magic. Around half of the Sonny Boy Blue Book Guides' spells employ Biblical passages, 
especially the Lord's Prayer and Psalm 23, both of which focus on God's protection and 

54 Bibb, 26-27; Rondo and Rondo, 15; Pyles, 328-329; Miller and Miller, Miller's 
Catalog, 20. See also The Key of Solomon the King (Clavicula Salomonis), trans, and ed. 
By S. Liddell MacGregor Mathers, with a Foreowrd by Richard Cavendish (York Beach: 
Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1972). 

55 Sonny Boy Blue Book, 10, 12, 14, 16. 

guidance. Biblical passages were not the only form that sympathy could take. For 
example, a spell from Marie Laveau's Original Black and White Magic entitled, "The 
Lady Who Has an Empty House," recommended the use of "Magnetic Sand" in 
conjunction with "Easy Life Oil," "Compelling Oil," "Nine Lucky Mixture," and other 
magical items to bring men and riches to one's door. Because of its ability to attract 
metal to itself, Magnetic Sand was a powerful sympathetic charm to draw both men and 
money. 56 

Easy Life Oil, Compelling Oil, and Nine Lucky Mixture illustrate a form of 
sympathy that first appeared in the spiritual products industry. Since most manufacturers 
used few traditional materials in their goods, they relied on their products' physical 
characteristics, packaging, and names to express their alleged magical qualities. A 
modern example is Indio Products' "Holy Oil." According to Master Bishop F. L. 
Robinson, it clears the thoughts when used in conjunction with Bible reading. Composed 
of Duoprime 70 and fragrance, it has nothing to recommend it beyond an agreeable odor 
and clear appearance, a label showing crosses and flowers, and self-proclaimed holiness. 
These very qualities, however, make it effective in the eyes of customers. Its pleasant 
smell and clarity indicate its purity and beneficial qualities. The label emphasizes its holy 
properties through its name and the crosses. Flowers, which adorn the bases of the 
crosses, both allude to herbal medicine and further emphasize the formula's reputed 
positive powers. Other manufactured products employ the principle of sympathy as well. 
Seven Sisters of New Orleans brand "Court Case Just Judge Incense" uses blue as the 
primary color of its label and of the incense itself. The label also sports a line drawing of 


Sonny Boy Blue Book Guide, 8-2 1 ; Laveau, 1 1 . 

a judge, dwarfed by a colorful flower-bearing root. Blue was long associated with 
protection. Moreover, the judge and root motif hearkened back to protective items like 
the herb, chewing John the Conqueror, which had once offered protection from slave 
masters and enemies. Some manufacturers used Indians, who symbolized healing and 
occult aptitude, to further their products' claims. A contemporary example is Sonny 
Boy's Old Indian 3 -Day Quick Money aerosol spray, which is adorned with a drawing of 
a Native American, labeled "Chief Tar," flanked by two green hands grasping money. 
Hindu and other Oriental themes have also been popular in product names and on labels, 
a practice common in patent medicine since the nineteenth century. 57 

As during the nineteenth century, some items had power beyond their sympathetic 
values. In the past, John the Conqueror root had been widespread and popular, and now, 
Sonny Boy Products offers "High John Conqueror" in seven different forms: candle, oil, 
incense, bath, salt/sand, soap, and spray. While most of Sonny Boy's items have specific 
uses, John the Conqueror is good for anything. An advertising blurb in the company's 
Blue Book Guide reads, "Works only for you. Add to any product. Conquers all." 58 
"Alleged Black Cat Bones" were similarly powerful, possessing a variety of uses from 
bringing good luck to winning love to guaranteeing rebirth after death. The Bible and 
other Christian religious objects continued to fulfill their versatile roles, as well. During 

"Robinson, interview by author; Mooney, "Cherokee Theory and Practice of 
Medicine," 44; Young, Toadstool Millionaires, 173-179. For further elaboration and 
examples, see Long Spiritual Merchants, 106-1 19. 


Sonny Boy Blue Book Guide, 2-3. 

the twentieth century they have been joined by Buddhas, which can reputedly bring luck 
in a variety of pursuits. 59 

Without doubt, the survival of the conjurer was the most important carryover 
between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Eugenia Brown's encounter with Aunt 
Jenny Dailey was but one example. Seven Sisters of Hogansville, Alabama, continued to 
serve her community well into the twentieth century. The same was true of the 
redoubtable Dr. Buzzard, who did not pass away until 1947. Not all hoodooists, 
however, were holdovers from the nineteenth century. James Spurgeon Jordan of North 
Carolina did not gain a reputation as a rootworker until the early twentieth century, 
though he had been dabbling in hoodoo since the 1 890s. After the death of Dr. Buzzard, 
his son-in-law took over, continuing to practice until his death in 1997. 60 

Despite the presence of impersonal, easily obtainable mail-order products, 
conjurers remained powerful forces in their communities. Furthermore, the decline of 
traditional conjure in the face of the spiritual products industry generated a crisis of 
supply, leading to greater demand for hoodooists' services. In keeping with classical 
economics, prices skyrocketed. Whereas Dr. John Bayou of New Orleans had reportedly 
left behind $50,000 in real estate at his death in 1885, several modern hoodooists 
approached or surpassed such riches. When Julius P. Caesar died in the early twentieth 
century, he was worth approximately $150,000. According to a price list compiled by 
employees of the Federal Writers Project, New Orleans hoodooists charged prices ranging 

59 Sonny Boy Blue Book Guide, 2-3; Snow, "Mail-Order Magic," 47, 51-52; Miller 
and Miller, Miller's Catalog, 39, 42. 

60 Eugenia Brown, interview by author; Carmer, 215-222; Pinckney, 102, 1 19-120, 
149-150; Johnson, 46. 

from $5.00 for love spells to $500.00 for spells to kill or drive enemies insane. Wealthy 
conjurers also lived outside New Orleans. Nancy Rhett, a native of the South Carolina 
Low Country, reported that she once had a striking experience while visiting a bank. In 
front of her in line was an unusual man. His clothing was covered in what appeared to be 
diamonds. Moreover, he was depositing a stack of checks over an inch thick. Only after 
asking the teller about his identity did she learn that he was a well-known rootworker. 61 
Likewise, observers reported that James Jordan earned an average of at least $3,000 a 
month from 1940 to 1960. On some occasions, he made this amount in a single week. 
He used the money he made from conjure to purchase several other businesses, including 
farms and a logging company. In the twenty- five years following 1937, he made about 
$2,000,000 from his various pursuits. 62 

Twentieth-century hoodooists, like their nineteenth-century counterparts, 
possessed more than just economic power. According to Eugenia Brown, Aunt Jenny 
Dailey was feared by all, regardless of race. Dr. Buzzard was held in respectful awe by 
those who had heard of his powers. During the 1920s, High Sheriff James McTeer of 
Beaufort County, South Carolina, pursued a medical malpractice investigation against the 
dread sorcerer, but he found it extremely difficult to collect evidence. The reason for this 
dilemma was that witnesses were unwilling to testify against or even discuss his doings. 

6l Rhett could not remember whether the conjurer was Dr. Buzzard or Dr. Eagle. 
Dr. Eagle was the most likely candidate, since he lived until at least the 1970s. 

62 Hearn, "The Last of the Voudoos," 726-727; Hyatt, Hoodoo-Conjuration- 
Witchcraft-Rootwork, 1642; Hazel Breaux and Robert McKinney, Federal Writers 
Project, "Hoodoo Price List,"in "Robert Tallant Papers," City Archives, New Orleans 
Public Library, New Orleans, 320-321; Nancy Rhett, proprietor of the Rhett Gallery, Inc., 
interview by author, 24 October 2001, Beaufort, SC, notes, personal collection, 
Birmingham, AL; Johnson, 60. 

After much difficulty, the sheriff convinced a prisoner, who was also a client of Dr. 
Buzzard, that he could protect him through his own magical powers. The prisoner, who 
had recently purchased some "medicine" from the root doctor, agreed to face Dr. Buzzard 
and confirm that he had sold him the nostrum. His resolve did not last long. When 
brought before the conjurer, he began to groan and "beat himself as if he were covered 
with stinging ants." 63 After a few moments, the prisoner collapsed and began foaming at 
the mouth. Fear had eliminated McTeer's best hope for a successful prosecution. 64 

Not all hoodoo doctors were simply objects of fear. Some became community 
leaders. The most impressive example of conjurers' leadership role was James Jordan. 
During the middle decades of the century, a settlement of several hundred grew around 
his practice, becoming known as Jordansville. The community was composed, as his 
biographer put it, of "his legal children; off children; grandchildren; waifs snuggling 
beneath his protective wings; men and women in his employ and their families; the 
multitudes bridled with economic obligations or professional services." 65 He provided for 
the physical needs of those who lived there and expected obedience in return. 
Government officials and law enforcement found it easier to work through Jordan than to 
assert their jurisdiction. Even the fearsome Dr. Buzzard lent positive leadership in his 
community, paying for the rebuilding of a church destroyed by fire in 1937. 66 


63 McTeer, Low Country Witch Doctor, 24. 

^Eugenia Brown, interview by author; McTeer, Low Country Witch Doctor, 23- 

65 Johnson, 68. 

66 Johnson, 67-78; Pinckney, 154. 

A few hoodooists' fame spread far beyond the boundaries of their communities, 
rivaling the reach of spiritual product companies. For example, James Jordan operated a 
brisk mail-order business throughout the country. It was also not uncommon to find cars 
from New York, Pennsylvania, and other northern states parked outside Jordan's office. 
Dr. Buzzard, though, was the best known conjurer of the twentieth century. He was a 
living legend in South Carolina, where conjurers were plentiful. Mamie Garvin Fields, 
who began teaching school on John's Island, South Carolina, in 1909, testified to Dr. 
Buzzard's reputation. According to Fields, a local hoodoo doctor, Jimmy Brisbane, was 
"what you would call a higher type of witchdoctor, because he knew how to drive all the 
way to Beaufort, which was noted for this: a witchdoctor of witchdoctors lived there, a 
Dr. Buzzard." 67 He was also known much further afield. Federal Writers Project 
employees discovered that his fame had spread to coastal Georgia by the 1930s. Harry 
Middleton Hyatt found that informants recognized his name as far away as Louisiana, 
Florida, and Virginia. 68 

-A few conjurers ignored the spiritual products industry, continuing to practice the 
traditional magic of their ancestors. One example was "Aunt" Jenny Dailey. Aunt Jenny, 
a former slave, lived alone near Burnt Corn, Alabama, during the first few decades of the 
twentieth century. Both blacks and whites feared her. During the late 1930s, a young 
white girl, named Eugenia Brown, had an unnerving encounter with the conjurer. One 

67 Mamie Garvin Fields, with Karen Fields, Lemon Swamp and Other Places: A 
Carolina Memoir (New York: The Free Press, 1983), 121. 

68 Johnson, 57-67, 132-133; Hyatt, Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft-Rootwork, 
891-905, 1414-1423, 1515-1517, 1646, 4513-4527, 4749-4751; Georgia Writers' Project, 
Savannah Unit, Drums and Shadows, 3 1, 60. 

day, she and her friends were playing on her front lawn when they spotted Aunt Jenny 
approaching. As she passed by Eugenia and her companions, she halted, drew a cross in 
the dirt, and spat on it. Having done so, she moved on. Eugenia feared she had been 
cursed. Drawing a cross in the dirt, however, had been a common protective ritual during 
the nineteenth century and may have remained so in the next. Eugenia also related that 
Aunt Jenny carried roots and other traditional magical materials with her wherever she 
went. Conjurers like Aunt Jenny were far from extinct, but they were not as common as 
they once had been. 69 

Most conjurers changed with the times, learning from their competitors in the 
spiritual products industry. They quickly grasped the benefits of advertising. One of the 
earliest to do so was the second Marie Laveau, who distributed cards describing her 
business. By the early twentieth century, conjurers were also advertising in newspapers. 
These advertisements typically touted the hoodooists' supernatural gifts and abilities to 
help those in need. For instance, a 1923 advertisement by "Madam" Ida B. Jefferson of 
Longview, Texas, proclaimed that she could "reach any disease you were not born 
with." 70 Furthermore, her abilities allowed her to cure illnesses without any information 
from patrons. All that she needed from customers was $25.00. In 1974, a supposed son 
of Dr. Buzzard used the pages of The Miami Times to proclaim that he was the "World's 

69 Eugenia Brown, interview by author, 9 May 2002, Owassa, AL, notes, personal 
collection, Birmingham, AL; Steiner, "Superstitions and Beliefs from Central Georgia " 

70 "Madam Ida B. Jefferson," The Chicago Defender, 7 July 1923, 18. 

Greatest Spiritualist" and "King of the Blessing." Similar advertisements continue 
today. 71 

Hoodooists adopted much more than marketing techniques from their 
manufacturing competitors. First, many began to use manufactured hoodoo in their 
practice. Beginning around 1927, James Jordan studied many of the books produced by 
spiritual supply companies, including Gamache's The Master Book of Candle Burning, 
The 6' h and 7 th Books of Moses, and Selig's Secrets of the Psalms. He went even further, 
buying roots, patent medicines, and ready-made conjure bags from mail-order companies 
for resale in his shop. Before this time, he gathered most of his materials from nearby 
forests. After discovering the ease of buying wholesale, he largely gave up this practice. 
Jordan was not alone. Master Bishop Robinson likewise sells manufactured spiritual 
products. His aid is still needed, however, because he alone knows the Biblical passages 
to use with each item. Root doctor Pop Williams, who also retails manufactured 
products, shares Robinson's philosophy. He says that his knowledge of spiritual 
products' uses sets him apart from the average salesman. 72 

As part of their adaptation to competition with the spiritual products industry, 
hoodooists have also sought to change their image. One way to do so was by adopting 
the Orientalism promoted by many spiritual products companies. Julius P. Caesar did so. 
When he performed his spells, he usually wore a black robe and green turban. More 

71 Tallant, Voodoo in New Orleans, 94-95; "Madam Ida B. Jefferson," 18. For 
some recent examples of hoodoo advertisements, see The Miami Times, 26 March 1998, 
5D; "Dr. Buzzard's Son," The Miami Times, 28 November 1974, 33. 

72 Johnson, 56-59; Robinson, interview by author; Thomas Williams, interview by 

recently, an African- American resident of St. Petersburg, Florida, practiced under the 
name "Prophet Warkiee Sarheed." When he worked, he donned a "seeing and hearing 
hat," which resembled an orange turban. 73 

More common than Oriental trappings were concerted efforts by magic workers to 
distance themselves from evil magic. Published literature had gone far to excoriate 
African- American magic. Whites, in particular, strongly associated blacks' 
supernaturalism with Satanism. As a result, most African-American sorcerers abandoned 
words like "hoodoo," "Voodoo," "witchcraft," and "rootwork." Instead, they began to 
refer to themselves as "mediums," "spiritual advisors," "reverends," "psychics," and 
"healers." 74 Many twentieth-century practitioners have designated hoodoo and Voodoo as 
evil, while proclaiming their own God-given abilities for good. Master Bishop Robinson 
draws a further distinction between hoodoo and what he calls "spiritual advising." 
Hoodoo or Voodoo, he argues, is a lower form of supernaturalism designed to compel 
others to do the will of the practitioner. Spiritual advising, however, deals with Christ, 
making it hoodoo's more powerful and more benevolent counterpart. Pop Williams also 
argues that hoodoo is a lower form of supernatural power, adding that those who practice 
it have less knowledge of the materials they use. 75 

73 Hyatt, Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft-Rootwork, 1645-1646, 2784, 4612. 

74 The possibility of prosecution for medical malpractice further spurred many to 
drop the title of "doctor" in favor of religious designations, such as "reverend" and 
"bishop." For example, see Robinson, interview by author, and "Mother Mary," The 
Miami Times, 4 July 1974, 37. 

75 Robinson, interview by author; Thomas Williams, interview by author. For 
examples of the changing terminology, see "A Spiritual Medium," The Chicago 
Defender, 14 August 1915, 3, and "Opportunity Awaits You," The Miami Times, 9 
January 1960, 11. Some non-practitioners have also adopted such terminology. For 

Some titles, such as "spiritual advisor" and "reverend," had an added benefit in 
that they linked hoodoo to religion. Such terms filled roles analogous to manufacturers' 
disclaimers. Hoodoo "doctors" were open to prosecution for practicing medicine without 
a license. Ministers performing religious rituals were protected by the United States 
Constitution. By the second half of the twentieth century, conjure "doctors" were rare. 76 

For most of the twentieth century, conjure's future has been in doubt. Throughout 
the nation conjurers' charms were giving way to commodities. Despite coming more in 
line with white Americans' beliefs and practices, however, both hoodooists and mail- 
order manufacturers remained liable for prosecution if they continued to practice their art. 
In part, this was because of white Americans' genuine concern for the physical welfare of 
those ingesting hoodooists' concoctions or being duped by unscrupulous frauds. More 
important, conjure was not yet an acceptable tradition in the eyes of a people who had 
long linked blackness with inferiority and supernaturalism with backwardness. In 
addition, many shops and manufacturers have experienced declining sales over the past 
few decades. According to Richard Miller, who sells spiritual products throughout the 
United States, the most notable change in the industry since he began working in the late 
1960s has been declining sales in the South. Several venerable conjure shops and 
manufacturing companies disappeared in the second half of the century. Among them 
were Valmor, which was bought out by a competitor uninterested in its spiritual products, 

instance, while looking for Master Bishop Robinson in Micanopy, Florida, I asked a 
woman if she knew of any hoodoo doctors in the area. She replied that there had once 
been one, but that he had died. Then, she took me to meet Robinson, whom she 
described as a healer. 

76 Elon Ali Kulii, "A Look at Hoodoo in Three Urban Areas of Indiana: Folklore 
and Change" (Ph.D. diss., Indiana University, 1982), 93-1 16. 

and all of New Orleans' older hoodoo drugstores. Most of the great traditional conjurers 
also passed away. James Jordan, the last root doctor to exert absolute power over a large 
following, died in 1962. 77 

On the other hand, plenty of hoodooists and spiritual product manufacturers and 
retailers continued to survive. Many entered the business in the second half of the 
century. Pop Williams did not embark on his rootworking career until the 1980s. New 
spiritual products businesses, like Indio, have also opened in recent years. In part, these 
new hoodooists and businesses were responses to forces which began to affect the United 
States during the 1950s. In the closing decades of the twentieth century and the opening 
years of the next, hoodoo has gained a new life and relevance through an ongoing 
struggle between old notions of hoodoo as at best suspect and at worst diabolic and a 
reevaluation of African- American conjure as an alternative "religion." 78 


77 Miller, interview by author; Johnson, 132-133; Long, Spiritual Merchants, 149- 
78 Thomas Williams, interview by author; Long, Spiritual Merchants, 262. 




Reverend Claudia Williams owns Starling Magickal Books & Crafts in New 
Orleans. In addition to books, she sells a small selection of black-oriented spiritual 
supplies and a variety of European magical materials. She also practices Voodoo. 
Williams' background gave little indication of her future career. She was born to white 
Episcopal parents in Manhattan. As a small child, psychic experiences sparked her 
interest in the occult. Williams never believed in the faith of her parents, who urged her 
to seek out her own path. Today, she is an ordained Minister of Ancient Ways, with 
specialization in Lakota Native American beliefs, Yoruba-based religions, witchcraft, and 
some ceremonial magic. 1 

Clearly, Reverend Claudia Williams is not a traditional conjurer. Her race, 
religious beliefs, and regional origin mark her as a member of a new brand of 
practitioners that has arisen in the late twentieth century. During the nineteenth century, 
magical practices originating in Africa survived by drawing on European and Native 
American beliefs. In the early twentieth century, individual conjurers and large 
companies turned to shops, mail order, and mass media to distribute their products to a 
broader area. Hoodoo developed further in the second half of the twentieth century. 

'Claudia Williams, proprietor of Starling Magickal Books and Crafts, interview by 
author, 16 November 2001, New Orleans, LA, notes and audio recording, personal 
collection, Birmingham, AL. 


During this time, conjure interacted with new features in American society, most 

noticeably scientific investigations of hoodoo, the rise of New Age ideology, and 

increased immigration from Latin America. It not only survived but adapted and 

prospered despite the changing situation. The result has been a growing acceptance of 

hoodoo, even beyond the borders of black society. 2 

By the late twentieth century, old-fashioned conjurers who gathered their 
materials from nature were rare. In one sense, traditional hoodoo was a rapidly fading 
practice. On the other hand, consumer conjure had itself become a tradition. 
Manufacturers had existed since the late nineteenth century. Even companies like 
Valmor and Keystone Laboratories were serving second- and third-generation customers. 
Spiritual supply stores had been around since at least the 1880s and probably earlier. To 
put this in perspective, other traditional features of black life had pedigrees dating from 
the same period. In music, blues and ragtime, the precursors of jazz, evolved in the late 
nineteenth century. The same was also true of legal segregation, which whites imposed 
on African- Americans during the post-Reconstruction Redeemer period. 3 

Another product of the nineteenth-century was "tourist Voodoo," and like the 
manufactured form, it has also become a tradition. In New Orleans, Voodoo designed for 
the tourist trade can be traced to the later St. John's Eve dances, to which spectators were 
admitted for a fee. During the mid- 1870s, the Pontchartrain Railroad made late-night 

Deborah, proprietor of Henderson Health, interview by author, 15 July 2002, 
Bessemer, AL, notes, personal collection, Birmingham, AL. "Deborah" is a pseudonym 
requested by the interviewee to protect her identity. 


Long, Spiritual Merchants, 261-263; Davis, 251; Cable, Grandissimes, 123, 147- 

trips to the nearby lake for those who hoped to witness the rituals. By 1 885, at least one 
guidebook featured a chapter on Voodoo, describing the St. John's Eve rites for visitors 
to the city. At times the crowds of sightseers numbered in the thousands. Key West, 
Florida, had its own "tourist Nanigo" by the turn of the century, personified by one of the 
religion's former leaders, Ganda, who danced for a fee. 4 

In recent years, Voodoo-oriented tourism has become a substantial industry, 
particularly in New Orleans. Visitors can purchase Voodoo dolls in many French Quarter 
shops. 5 Robert Tallant's Voodoo in New Orleans and The Voodoo Queen, which are 
easily obtainable from most of the city's bookstores, provide entertaining blends of 
folklore and fact to curious readers. A few shops sell nothing but tourist-oriented hoodoo 
materials. Marie Laveau's House of Voodoo and Rev. Zombie's Voodoo Shop are on 
and just off Bourbon Street, respectively. Their goods range from traditional conjure 
formulas to tee shirts. Another store, Voodoo Authentica, is on North Peters Street, 
which runs alongside the Mississippi River. In addition to souvenirs, it "provides 
authentic ritual entertainment" for business functions and social events. 6 Those who are 
interested in more than just souvenirs can take one of the city's many Voodoo tours. 
Guides take visitors to see such sites as the grave of Marie Laveau, Congo Square, and 

4 Touchstone, 375-386; Kennedy, "Nanigo in Florida," 155; William H. Coleman, 
ed., Historical Sketch Book and Guide to New Orleans and Environs (New York: Will H. 
Coleman, 1885), 229-231. 

historically, dolls were rare, but not unknown, in hoodoo. 

6 "Welcome to Voodoo Authentica (TM)," Voodoo Authentica Website, 2000- 
2002, <> (9 July 2002). 

the offices of current practitioners. There is even a New Orleans Historic Voodoo 

Museum which displays many artifacts from Haiti and Louisiana. 7 

Louisiana is not the only place where one can experience African- American 
magical practices from a tourist's perspective. Excursions offered by Gullah Tours of 
Charleston, South Carolina, include tales of Dr. Buzzard. Moreover, one need not leave 
home to get a taste of hoodoo from a non-participatory viewpoint. Information on 
Voodoo is readily available to cyber tourists, courtesy of websites provided by the New 
Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum, Voodoo Authentica, and other tourist attractions. 
While touring or visiting an internet site, one can keep thirst-free with a bottle of Voodoo 
Rain fruit drink, which comes in such flavors as "Black Magic," "Mojo Luv," and "Lucky 
Devil." Each bottle is complete with a list of the flavor's herbal ingredients along with 
their reputed benefits. The drink's magical image is complete with a logo in which the 
"V" in "Voodoo" is formed by two pins, doubtless designed to inspire thoughts of 
Voodoo dolls. 8 

Many owners of tourist businesses are believers in or at least respectful of 
Voodoo. At the same time, however, they follow the example of Voodoo Rain, relying 
on traditional stereotypes of Voodoo and hoodoo to attract their primarily white clientele. 

7 "Welcome to the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum," The New Orleans 
Historic Voodoo Museum Website, <> (9 July 2002). 
For an example of a Voodoo tour, see "Voodoo and Cemetery Tour," Haunted History 
Tours Website, 1996-2001, <> (9 July 2002). 

8 Charles deV. Williams, "Gullah Tours," The Charleston Post and Courier, 13 
April 1999; reprint, Gullah Tour Website, 11 April 2002, 

<> (9 July 2002); "Welcome to Voodoo 
Authentica (TM);" "Welcome to the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum." Voodoo 
Rain is a product of Everfresh/LaCROK Beverages. 

For example, the front cover of a brochure issued by the New Orleans Historic Voodoo 

Museum announces its goal as "proclaiming multicultural understanding." The text 
proposes that those who visit will "[m]arvel as history and mystery unfolds from the lips 
of your knowledgeable guide." While there, patrons will hear "authentic sounds of ritual 
drumming and chanting," as they "view our permanent collection of bizarre and rare 
historic displays - some belonging to the Great Marie Laveau herself!" Alongside the 
words are intentionally grotesque drawings of dolls resembling skeletons, idols with 
protruding tongues, and scantily-clad women dancing with snakes. Similarly, Marie 
Laveau's House of Voodoo employs actual hoodoo practitioners and sells many old- 
fashioned herbal goods. At the same time, its location on Bourbon Street guarantees that 
most visitors are tourists, uninterested in Voodoo beyond its value as a source of mystery 
and entertainment. In short, while visiting conjure shops and ordering spiritual supplies 
by mail are longstanding African- American customs, Voodoo tourism is a distinctly white 
tradition. 9 

During most of the twentieth century, participation in hoodoo has remained 
outside the mainstream American experience. Whites have usually viewed it as backward 
or even satanic. For instance, in a 1927 article for The New Republic, Lyle Saxon 
compared New Orleans Voodoo to the "black masses" of European witchcraft. Most 
middle-class African- Americans also denigrated conjure. In 1951, an article in Ebony 

'"New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum" Brochure (New Orleans: Marie 
Laveau's House of Voodoo); "Marie Laveau's Magic Herb Packets" (New Orleans: 
Marie Laveau's House of Voodoo). My own experience confirms the tourist orientation 
of Marie Laveau's House of Voodoo. When I visited the shop in November 2001, 1 asked 
an employee if he would be able to give me his views on hoodoo. To my surprise, he said 
that he did not know enough to help me. 

described Voodoo as "a snake-worshiping cult" which had developed into a "lucrative 
racket." After describing the respect that modern believers held for Marie Laveau, the 
author concluded, "Like her present-day contemporaries, Marie Laveau, too, was a 
charlatan of the worst sort." 10 A similar article, "Would You Believe It . . . Superstition 
Lives!," appeared in a 1976 issue ofEbony. u 

Three major developments have helped conjure begin to escape its negative 
image. First, many blacks have embraced scientific explanations for hoodoo, usually 
drawing from the fields of psychology and psychiatry. While interviewing African- 
Americans for a doctoral dissertation in 1977, Elon Ali Kulii discovered that a number of 
believers interpreted hoodoo as a scientific, not a supernatural, practice. As one 
informant put it, "Well, hoodoo had its beginnings back in the late seventeenth and 
eighteenth centuries, among the slave plantations. The people of poor economic status. 
Therefore, it substituted for what we use psychiatry for today." 12 Another, when asked 
about other names for conjure, replied, "Mainly science, the study of science . . . But 
many stupid or uninformed people call it voodoo or hoodoo." 13 Elaborating, he described 
the practice of conjure as the workings of "mind over matter." 14 

Many modern hoodooists practice with the understanding that they are providing 
valuable, scientifically sound services. One of the first explicitly to profess this belief 

10 Clayton, 54,60-61. 

"Lyle Saxon, "Voodoo," The New Republic, 23 March 1927, 135; Bims, 118-122. 

12 Kulii, "A Look at Hoodoo," 41 1-412. 

13 Ibid., 385. 

14 Ibid.,417. 

was the white witch doctor, James McTeer. He advocated the incorporation of rootwork 
into medicine and psychiatry as a means of calming the minds of those who believed 
themselves to be under the influence of evil conjure. Today, "Pop" Williams describes 
himself as "a salesman with good advice." 15 He maintains that most of his clients' 
problems are the results of troubled minds. His job is to relieve their emotional distress. 
To do so, he often prescribes spiritual products. Nevertheless, he argues that these lack 
any power outside of his clients' beliefs. 16 

The primary reason for African- Americans' scientific approach to hoodoo is that 
modern science itself has taken a more positive view of conjure than in years past. 
Anthropologists were the first to examine the effectiveness of magic, typically through 
the idea of "voodoo death." Walter B. Cannon's seminal essay, "'Voodoo' Death," did 
more than any other work to bring hoodoo into the realm of science. First published in 
American Anthropologist in 1942, it presented the novel argument that those who 
believed themselves cursed were indeed harmed by extreme stress. In the years since the 
publication of Cannon's article, others have taken up the problem. One of the more 
influential essays of the last two decades has been Harry Eastwell's "Voodoo Death and 
the Mechanism for Dispatch of the Dying in East Arnhem, Australia." According to 
Eastwell, fear of curses was usually present in individuals who had committed such acts 
as murder or other crimes that would likely anger members of their communities. What 
followed was an escalating cycle of psychological and social pressures. First, fear 


15 Thomas Williams, interview by author. 

16 McTeer, Low Country Witch Doctor, 12-14, 27; Thomas Williams, interview by 

exacerbated any preexisting medical conditions, potentially damaging the victim's health. 
In time, friends and family members often also came to believe that the supposed victim 
was cursed. Their convictions reinforced those of the sufferer, making it difficult for him 
or her to lead a normal life. After a period of hope, the loved ones and the victim would 
surrender to despair, and the afflicted would prepare to die. On the sufferer's part, 
abandonment of everyday activities, including eating and drinking, followed. In cases 
examined by the author, families facilitated the victims' deterioration by taking away 
water. Their intent was to help the spirit to part from the body. The result was death. 
Despite their titles, however, neither Cannon nor Eastwell's essays addressed Voodoo 
proper. On the contrary, both used cases from Australia to generalize about the 
potentially harmful effects of magic. 17 

Mental health professionals were the first to apply the anthropologists' theories of 
Voodoo death to African- American hoodoo cases. In addition, while anthropologists 
highlighted the negative power of magic, psychologists and psychiatrists also came to see 
its beneficial properties. For instance, in a 1966 article in Psychosomatic Medicine, 
psychiatrist David C. Tinling reported on seven incidences of "hexed" African- Americans 
at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York. Each patient complained of 
symptoms which initially defied diagnosis. In some cases, doctors eventually discovered 
physical or mental roots for the ailments. Others remained unidentified. Tinling 
concluded that physicians should ask patients whether they had been victims of hoodoo as 
part of their treatment. Doing so would help them to differentiate between physical or 
mental disorders and disorders prompted largely by conjure. While the former could 


Cannon, 186-190; Marvin Harris, 16; Eastwell, 8-17. 

often be treated with orthodox medicine and psychology, the latter required the services 

of rootworkers. A few years after Tinling's article appeared, Ronald M. Wintrob went 

even further, stating that doctors and psychiatrists should always incorporate hoodoo into 

their treatments for those who had faith in its power. To do so, health care professionals 

should ask patients about their beliefs, allowing them to build trust and a rapport with 

their caregivers. Moreover, he stated that "medical personnel should expect their patients 

who believe in malign magic to consult a native healer or a rootworker before, during, or 

after treatment." 18 Throughout the 1970s, similar articles appeared with increasing 

frequency in periodicals aimed at doctors, nurses, psychiatrists and psychologists, and the 

general public. Their popularity continues to the present. 19 

Conjure has drawn on sources outside psychology, however. Chief among these 

is parapsychology, a fringe science with the sole aim of finding scientific explanations for 

various aspects of the supernatural. Parapsychology originated as a branch of psychology 

during the late nineteenth century. In the 1920s, emerged as a distinct field. William 

McDougall, an Oxford psychologist, coined the term "parapsychology," after he moved to 

Duke University and began to study what was more commonly known as psychic 

phenomenon. By 1937, the field had a laboratory at Duke University and its own 

18 Wintrob, 326. 

19 David C. Tinling, "Voodoo, Root Work, and Medicine," Psychosomatic 
Medicine 5 (1967): 483-490; Wintrob, 324-326. For examples of some recent articles, 
see William M. Straight, "Throw Downs, Fixin, Rooting and Hexing," The Journal of the 
Florida Medical Association, Inc. 70 (1983): 635-641, and Jeremy Brown, "Vital Signs: 
A Deadly Specter," Discover Magazine, September 1 995, 48-5 1 . See also Wilburn H. 
Watson, ed., Black Folk Medicine: The Therapeutic Significance of Faith and Trust (New 
Brunswick and London: Transaction Books, 1984), and Wonda L. Fontenot, Secret 
Doctors: Ethnomedicine of African Americans (Westport and London: Bergin & Garvey, 

scholarly journal. The Parapsychological Association became the first professional 
organization for paranormal researchers in 1957. 20 

Most parapsychologists devote themselves to the search for proof of extrasensory 
perception, psychokinesis, and life after death. Recently, however, some have begun to 
examine magic. For instance, according to Michael Winkelman's "Magic: A Theoretical 
Reassessment," it can be explained as the workings of psi phenomenon. 21 Therefore, 
differences among cultures are only superficial and derived from local religious beliefs 
and values. Although research specifically addressing hoodoo is rare, parapsychology 
indirectly promotes it by providing an ostensibly scientific explanation for its power. For 
instance, whereas blacks have traditionally attributed conjurers' powers to God or spirits, 
parapsychologists would more likely identify ESP or psychokinesis as their source. 22 

Parapsychology rivals psychology in its influence on hoodoo. James McTeer, 
who offered psychological explanations for hoodoo's supposed effectiveness, also 
claimed to have inherited extrasensory perception from his mother and grandmother. The 
most telling example of hoodoo's assimilation of parapsychology is the proliferation of 
"psychics" catering to black customers. A perusal of African- American newspapers is the 

20 Loyd Auerbach, ESP, Hauntings and Poltergeists: A Parapsychologist 's 
Handbook (New York: Warner Books, 1986), 65-77. Please note that Duke University 
has severed its ties with the parapsychology laboratory. 

21 "Psi," as defined by Loyd Auerbach, means "exchanges of information between 
living things (mainly people, of course), or between living things and the environment, or 
are influences of living things on the environment, which occur without the use of what 
we call the 'normal' senses, and do not seem to be explicable by the 'known' physical 
laws of nature." Auerbach, 15-16. 

22 Auerbach, 15-55; Michael Winkelman, "Magic: A Theoretical Reassessment," 
Current Anthropology 23 (1982): 37-66. See also Benjamin B. Wolman, ed., Handbook 
of Parapsychology (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1977). 

easiest way to identify such professionals. For instance, one page of a recent issue of The 

Miami Times includes two advertisements for psychics. Close examination of their texts 

reveals that these "psychics" hoped that African- Americans would recognize them as 

rootworkers. One advertisement states that "Niva" can "remove spells, voodoo, evil, 

curse jinx, [and] demons." The second, by "Sister Lisa," states that she sells roots, 

candles, and incense, all common hoodoo paraphernalia. 23 

A few scientists have sought the source of conjure's power in biological factors. 
In 1967, an article in The Journal of the American Medical Association argued that 
poisons were responsible for at least some hoodoo-induced sicknesses. The most 
important work supporting a biological basis for conjure, however, has been Faith 
Mitchell's Hoodoo Medicine. Mitchell, a medical anthropologist, collected dozens of 
herbal remedies among the Gullah of the South Carolina Sea Islands. In addition to 
describing their traditional uses among African- Americans, she also listed their official 
pharmacological properties. 24 

Although many conjurers and believers have accepted psychological or 
parapsychological explanations for hoodoo's reputed powers, the number who admit to 
using herbal remedies and other biologically active agents is small. Certainly, the threat 
of prosecution for practicing medicine without a license is a powerful incentive to avoid 

23 McTeer, Low Country Witch Doctor, 12-14, 27; "Psychic Readings by Niva," 
The Miami Times, 26 March 1998, 5D; "Sister Lisa," The Miami Times, 26 March 1998, 
5D. See also Kulii, "A Look at Hoodoo," 93-1 16, which offers a different perspective on 
the transformation of hoodooists into psychics. 

24 J. Robin Saphir, Arnold Gold, James Giambrone, and James F. Holland, 
"Voodoo Poisoning in Buffalo, NY," The Journal of the American Medical Association 
202 (1967): 437-438; Mitchell, 41-100. 

them. At the same time, most conjurers now rely on manufactured spiritual supplies from 

large mail-order companies. Herbal remedies are no longer readily available. Most 

important, however, African-Americans now have greater access to trained doctors. 

Despite these hurdles, a few practitioners have adopted elements of the biological 

explanation for hoodoo. For instance, Phoenix Savage, a small-scale hoodooist who 

works primarily for family and friends, reports that her most requested products are 

medicinal items, used to treat specific ailments. Nevertheless, most of her clients use her 

products in conjunction with the services of a physician. Despite their small numbers at 

present, practitioners accepting a biological basis for conjure are likely to grow because 

herbalism has become increasingly popular. 25 

Modern hoodooists have also drawn heavily from the occult revival known as the 

New Age Movement. The New Age Movement is a complex topic and deserves some 

introduction. Its roots extend into the first half of the nineteenth century. In the United 

States, the 1830s and 1840s were a period of remarkable religious ferment which 

witnessed the rise of several new religions, including Mormonism, Transcendentalism, 

and Spiritualism. Transcendentalism and Spiritualism, both incorporating a strong mystic 

element, contributed strongly to the promotion of occult traditions in the United States. 

Later in the century, another new religion, Theosophy, proclaimed the oneness of all life, 

consciousness, and power, an idea which would inspire much of New Age thought. In 

addition, it stressed the use of science to explain the workings of the supernatural, a 

position reinforced by parapsychology in the twentieth century. At the same time 

"Phoenix Savage, hoodoo practitioner, interview by author, 28 July 2002, phone 
call between Birmingham, AL and Nashville, TN, notes, personal collection, 
Birmingham, AL. 

Theosophy was taking hold, proponents of New Thought were proclaiming a philosophy 

of health which stressed "inner healing." According to its proponents, each human had a 

spiritual nature. The key to health was recognizing one's spiritual being and allowing the 

divine to work cures in the flesh. Ultimately, wrong thoughts translated into physical 

illness. Right ones led to health. In sum, New Thought was a philosophy of positive 

thinking, another idea that would reappear in the New Age Movement. 26 

Today's New Age Movement was sparked primarily by the interaction of 

increased East Asian immigration and the rise of the counterculture. Asian Buddhists, 

Hindus, and Sikhs had been in the United States well before the twentieth century, but 

their numbers were limited by the tight regulations of the Oriental Exclusion Act. In 

1965, however, President Lyndon Johnson rescinded the act. The result was a massive 

influx of new East Asian immigrants, including religious teachers. For the history of the 

New Age Movement, the timing was fortuitous. As the Vietnam War dragged on and 

racial strife divided the nation, the younger generation abjured the values of white 

middle-class Protestant America. In many cases, part of their rejection was the 

abandonment of Christianity. Following the flood of Asian immigrants, Eastern religions 

were the obvious countercultural choice. Zen Buddhism, transcendental meditation, and 

yoga were but a few of the most popular faiths. Like older American occultism, they 

26 Richard Kyle, The New Age Movement in American Culture (Lanham, New 
York, and London: University Press of America, Inc., 1995), 27-39; Kay Alexander, 
"Roots of the New Age," in Perspectives on the New Age, ed. James R. Lewis and J. 
Gordon Melton (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992), 30-47. 

tended to stress mysticism, oneness with the universe, and realization of one's own divine 
potential. 27 

The movement peaked after the decline of the counterculture. By the 1970s and 
1980s, it had spread beyond its Eastern base to incorporate a wide range of other practices 
and faiths, including extraterrestrial cults, astrology, neopaganism, and magical 
herbalism. Today, however, the movement is in decline. According to a 1991 New York 
Times survey, only 28,000 Americans identified themselves as "New Agers." Many 
others share the ideology but eschew the term "New Age," because of the media's 
popularization of it during the 1980s. The future of the movement is likewise threatened 
by an aging membership consisting largely of baby boomers who became interested in it 
during the years of the counterculture. Ironically, while many began their involvement as 
part of a rebellion against societal norms, most have now moved into the middle class. 
They tend to be white, educated, upwardly-mobile, and socially respectable. Despite the 
movement's declining presence, it has dramatically affected American culture. 
Herbalism has become widely accepted as a healthful activity. Polls indicate that 
approximately one third of Californians participate in yoga or meditation on a daily basis. 
Some scholars estimate that as many as twenty-five percent of all Americans have 
participated in some aspect of the movement. 28 

The key elements of the New Age Movement are not easy to define. Yet, 
common features appear throughout the movement. For instance, most of its members 

"Kyle, 10-11,49-53,57-74. 

28 Kyle, 4-5, 10-11, 53-74; Heelas, 106-132; James R. Lewis, "Approaches to the 
Study of the New Age Movement," in Perspectives on the New Age, ed. James R. Lewis 
and J. Gordon Melton (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992), 11-12. 

embrace pacifism, political reform, feminism, and environmentalism, all of which they 

adopted from the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s. More important, most scholars 

agree that the movement's diverse adherents share a faith in self-spirituality. According 

to Paul Heelas, self-spirituality consists of three main elements. First, New Agers hold 

that personal experience should take precedence over belief. In this view, belief is an 

organizational system which inhibits spiritual development. Second, each person is a 

spiritual being whose own mind is the only valid source of truth. Finally, to realize one's 

spiritual potential, he or she must abandon socialized values and institutions, such as 

organized religion and societal norms of conduct. 29 

Self-spirituality created several other features shared by all or most of the groups 

within the movement. Among the chief of these characteristics are extreme 

individualism, subjective morality, belief in the power of magic, holistic approaches to 

health, religious pluralism understood as different paths to truth, and denial of authority. 

Despite their rejection of organized religion, New Agers see no contradiction in 

borrowing from a variety of traditional religions in their search for personal spiritual 

uplift. Indeed, adherents of virtually all aspects of the movement, from Eastern 

mysticism to Wicca, claim to be following ancient faiths. Moreover, while people 

typically adhere to particular path, such as Wiccan, this chosen identity does little to keep 

them from borrowing the practices of other religions, ranging from Hinduism to Sufi 

Islam to ancient Gnosticism. These shared features, however, are not merely a means of 


Heelas, 18-28; Kyle, 52; Faber, 1-16; Melody Baker, 15-16. 

imposing order on a mass of unconnected faiths. On the contrary, they are responsible for 
the diversity of the New Age Movement. 30 

The New Age Movement's history of eclecticism and philosophy of self- 
spirituality made it attractive to hoodooists. Priestess Miriam Chamani is an excellent 
example of an African- American Voodoo practitioner who draws heavily from New Age 
philosophy. Born into a family of Mississippi Baptists, Chamani's first step on the path 
toward Voodoo came out of her experience in the Spiritual Church, which commonly 
utilizes herbal medicine and recognizes the existence of many spirits. 31 She began 
practicing Voodoo in 1975. Though her introduction to Voodoo came from traditional 
sources, she has nevertheless incorporated New Age self-spirituality into her own beliefs 
and practices. For instance, when the author asked whether she had been initiated into the 
religion, she replied that life initiates people, who are driven by "thoughts far beyond 
their birthing." 32 Further elaborating, she stated that withdrawal from the church allows 
greater freedom and self-expression. According to Chamani, submitting to religious 
ministers, Christian or otherwise, limits higher expressions of God. She has also 
incorporated other elements of New Age philosophy into her practice. Chamani 

30 Heelas, 18-28, 225-226; Kyle, 18-20, 41-55; J. Gordon Melton, et al., New Age 
Encyclopedia: A Guide to the Beliefs, Concepts, Terms, People, and Organizations That 
Make up the New Global Movement Toward Spiritual Development, Health and Healing, 
Higher Consciousness, and Related Subjects (Detroit and London: Gale Research, Inc., 

3 'The Spiritual Church is not to be confused with white spiritualism. For more on 
the Spiritual Church, see Conclusion. 

32 Miriam Chamani, priestess of Voodoo Spiritual Temple, interview by author, 15 
November 2001, New Orleans, LA, notes and audio recording, personal collection, 
Birmingham, AL. 

described a vision she claimed to have had. In the vision, she looked ahead and saw 

many paths branching before her. When she looked behind, she discovered that the many 

paths were actually only one. Chamani interpreted her experience as a representation of 

the oneness of all religious faiths. 33 

Hoodoo gained more than just new concepts from the movement. New Age 
religions proved to be a fertile field for the recruitment of new believers. Initially, 
hoodoo did not attract members of a movement designed to be countercultural. After all, 
it had long been a part of American culture and had become deeply infused with 
Christianity. More important, like most whites, New Agers were not familiar with 
African- American culture. During the 1980s and early 1990s, however, increasing 
numbers of New Agers turned to African- American belief systems for spiritual growth. 
Within a worldview that advocates self-spirituality and religious relativism, 
condemnation of African- American magic proved impossible. On the contrary, New 
Agers now see it as a worthy source for personal spiritual development. The result has 
been an influx of white hoodoo practitioners, a revival of African religious elements in 
hoodoo, and a tendency to merge conjure with a variety of other magical and religious 

One of the best examples of New Age Voodooists is Reverend Claudia Williams. 
Like most New Age conjurers, she is white. Furthermore, she began her involvement in 
alternative religions as a Wiccan. After a time, she found it boring. She says that, unlike 
Wicca, Voodoo is complex and grows with the practitioner. Her magical practice 

33 Chamani, interview by author; "Voodoo Spiritual Temple" Brochure (New 
Orleans: Voodoo Spiritual Temple). 

consists primarily of private "spellwork" for clients, whose needs generally involve love, 

protection, or money. Like Voodooists of the nineteenth century, she claims to work 

most closely with gods originating in Africa. Her closest relationships are reportedly with 

Oya and Shango, a goddess and a god present in both Vodou and Santeria. At the same 

time, as a Minister of Ancient Ways, she also incorporates elements of Native American 

religions, Hinduism, and other faiths into her personal system of belief and practice. 34 

Williams is not alone in the way she practices Voodoo. Sallie Ann Glassman of 
New Orleans, also a white, began her involvement in New Age and occult practices as a 
child growing up in the Northeast. To her they seemed too strongly tied to secrecy and 
individual will and ignored the needs of the community. Eventually, she turned to 
Haitian Vodou as an alternative, undergoing initiation as a mambo in Haiti. Despite her 
abandonment of New Age philosophy, Glassman still shows the influence of her 
background. For instance, she gives her religious affiliation as "Vodou and Jewish," a 
practice in keeping with the New Age concept of religious unity and relativism. 35 She has 
also abandoned the Haitian practice of animal sacrifice. Instead, she offers some of her 
own life force to the spirits through yoga. 36 

S. Jason Black and Christopher S. Hyatt, authors of Urban Voodoo, likewise show 
the influence of a New Age background in their practice. Though they openly disdain 
many aspects of the movement, particularly Wicca, they readily incorporate crystal balls, 

34 Claudia Williams, interview by author; Brandon, 77. 
35 A mambo is a Haitian Vodou priestess. 


Sallie Ann Glassman, proprietor of Island of Salvation Botanica, interview by 
author, 14 November 2001, New Orleans, LA, notes and audio recording, personal 
collection, Birmingham, AL. 

Tibetan Buddhist chants, and European ceremonial magic into their rituals. Just as 

important, they suggest that practitioners avoid adopting Haitian Vodou with all of its 

morals and mythology intact. Instead, Black and Hyatt argue that the "great virtue of 

Voodoo in contrast to other paths is direct experience and the pursuit of results [through 

magic]." 37 Further keeping within New Age self-spirituality, they advocate self-initiation 

over traditional methods. As is the case with Williams and Glassman, Black and Hyatt 

are both white. Like it or not, they are as strongly influenced by the movement as any 

Wiccan. 38 

Conjure has further developed by interacting with the massive influx of 
immigrants whose faith in supernaturalism is similar. During the second half of the 
twentieth century, large numbers of Latin Americans have immigrated to the United 
States, driven by a variety of economic and political forces. With them, they have 
brought African-European syncretic religions and magical traditions. These include 
Puerto Rican Espiritismo, Cuban Palo Mayombe, Mexican curanderismo and brujeria, 
Haitian Vodou, Trinidadian Shango, and Brazilian Candomble. In recent years, however, 
the most influential syncretic faith has been Cuban Santeria. 39 

Santeria, like Louisianan Voodoo, includes a variety of gods, primarily derived 
from the Yoruba pantheon. As in Africa, these are arranged in a hierarchical order. At 
the top presides Olodumare, the remote creator of the universe, roughly equivalent to the 

37 S. Jason Black and Christopher S. Hyatt, Urban Voodoo: A Beginner's Guide to 
Afro-Caribbean Magic (Tempe: New Falcon Publications, 1995), 122. 

38 Glassman, interview by author; Black and Hyatt, 122, 142, 179-188. 

39 Brandon, 1-2. 

Christian God. Below Olodumare are the orishas, each of which has an equivalent 

Catholic saint. Next in rank are ancestral spirits, collectively known as eguns. Further 

down the spiritual hierarchy are humans, plants and animals, and nonliving things. All 

life, including Olodumare, is filled with Ashe, an absolute spiritual force. 40 

Magic is an important part of Santeria. For instance, Santerian priests, known as 
"babalawos," practice divination for paying clients. One method involves casting kola 
nuts or their substitutes and interpreting the resulting pattern. In the United States, most 
babalawos divine using the "opele," a long chain to which are attached tortoiseshell discs 
at regular intervals. The chains are typically lowered onto a flat surface by practitioners, 
who hold them at their center. As with kola nuts, the resulting patterns tell clients' 
fortunes. Divination is but part of the babalawos' craft. After diagnosing a magically- 
induced illness or other problem through the use of kola nuts or opeles, they also 
prescribe cures. Treatments usually involve rituals and sacrifices. For instance, in one 
case encountered by Joseph M. Murphy, a young woman consulted a babalawo, who 
discovered that she had an ovarian cyst using divination. He recommended that the 
woman visit a doctor, take a special herbal bath, and make a sacrifice to Oshun, god of 
rivers, fresh water, and erotic love. For their magical materials, believers visit botanicas, 
which sell statues of saints, candles, herbs, oils, and other goods. 41 

Believers in Santeria had lived in the United States since well before the twentieth 
century, but the Cuban Revolution of 1959 boosted their numbers into the hundreds of 
thousands, if not millions. The first Cubans to arrive were generally from the upper and 

40 Ibid., 13-17,74-78. 

4l Brandon, 140-142; Murphy, 39-48, 62-69, 181. 

middle classes. As time passed, the socioeconomic status of the immigrants declined. 

Most of those arriving after 1962 were from lower middle- and working-class families. 

By 1979, Dade County, Florida, alone had 430,000 inhabitants of Cuban origin. Today, 

sizeable communities exist throughout the nation, with particularly high concentrations in 

major cities, including New York City; Washington, DC; and Union City, New Jersey. 

Cubans, especially those of the working class, brought Santeria with them. Moreover, in 

the United States, many immigrants adopted the religion as an important cultural symbol. 

The result has been an increase in its practice amongst Cuban Americans. In addition, 

some Americans and immigrants from other Latin American nations have entered the 

Santeria fold. According to George Brandon, "Santeria now almost certainly has more 

devotees in the United States than it had in Cuba at the time of the revolution." 42 

Santeria's similarity to hoodoo has made it a support of older African- American 

beliefs. For instance, as several venerable conjure shops closed in recent years, blacks 

turned to Santerian botanicas. 43 F and F Botanica and Candle Shop in New Orleans is one 

of the best examples. The store was initially founded in 1976 by a Cuban follower of 

Santeria, Enrique Cortez. The store is now owned by a Baptist Puerto Rican who says 

that it is open to all beliefs. To many patrons, however, it is a "hoodoo store." 44 

Santeria's appeal to hoodoo practitioners is sometimes recognized by African- American 

42 Brandon, 104-120, quoted 104. 

43 In the Southwest, the same is true of yerberias, shops which serve the needs of 
Mexican practitioners of traditional curanderismo (healing) and brujeria (magic). See 
Long, Spiritual Merchants, 159, 179-180. 

^During my approximately thirty minutes in the store, seven patrons visited. All 
but one were African- American. 

conjurers. According to Deborah, a "spiritual worker" of Bessemer, Alabama, modern 

African- American magic is primarily Latin American in origin. 45 

Santeria has also done much to draw new believers to hoodoo. While science and 
the New Age movement made Voodoo acceptable to many whites, the growth of Santeria 
made African- American magic and syncretic religions acceptable parts of black identity. 
In some cases, experience with successful Santerian rituals persuaded blacks to adopt it as 
a religious faith. For example, Lorita Mitchell turned to Santeria in a desperate effort to 
find a cure for her son's cancer. Apparently as a result of following a ritual prescribed by 
the owner of a local botanica, her son's cancer disappeared. Today, both Lorita Mitchell 
and her son are members of the Santerian priesthood. 46 

Others turned to Santeria and other syncretic faiths as an expression of black 
nationalism. The most extreme example of this is Oba Oseijeman Adefumni I and 
Oyotunji. Adefumni began life as Walter King of Detroit. As a young man, he traveled 
to New York to become an artist and dancer. While there, he encountered Cuban 
adherents of Santeria. Inspired by the religion's African features, he became deeply 
involved, traveling to Cuba for initiation as a priest of Obatala. 47 Over time, he became 
involved in the Civil Rights Movement, advocating a form of separatism based on 

45 Brandon, 104; Long, Spiritual Merchants, 255; Figueroa, interview by author; 
Jonell Smith and Jazell Smith, members of St. Benedict Spiritual Church, conversations 
with and overheard by author, 15 November 2001, New Orleans, LA, notes and audio 
recording, personal collection, Birmingham, AL; Rod Davis, American Voudou: Journey 
into a Hidden World (Denton: University of North Texas Press, 1999), 56-59; Deborah, 
interview by author. 


Rod Davis, 17-59. 

47 King, unlike most African- Americans who encounter Santeria, did so before the 
Cuban Revolution. See Rod Davis, 183-184. 

Yoruba religion. In time, he came to believe that the movement had been a failure. As a 

result, he left New York and his old life behind, but he did not abandon his ideology of 

black nationalism. Settling in South Carolina, he realized his dream as the village of 

Oyotunji, literally meaning "return of the horseman" or "return to Oyo," a famous 

Yoruban city. The village was to be a recreation of Africa in America. To this end, he 

declared the village an independent nation, adopting the name Adefumni I and the title of 

"king." King Adefumni also abandoned the Catholic elements of Santeria in favor of 

"pure" Yoruba religion. Though the villagers now number in the thirties, there were 

around 200 during the 1970s. 48 

Few are as radical in their response to Santeria as Adefumni. More typical is Ava 

Kay Jones, a New Orleans Voodoo priestess. As a child living in rural New Orleans, she 

had grown up knowing about hoodoo. Enrique Cortez, owner of the F and F Botanica 

and Candle Shop, however, introduced her to the religion of Santeria. Combined with her 

previous knowledge of hoodoo, it became what author Rod Davis calls "Orisha 

Voudou." 49 Jones saw no reason to abandon Catholicism. As she explains it, "I don't 

agree with all the Church dogma, but if we're dealing with what Christ taught, then I'm a 

Christian in that sense." 50 At the same time, Jones demonstrates an attachment to cultural 

nationalism. One of the best examples of her leanings was her initiation as a priestess of 

the goddess Oya. It took place in Atlanta, Georgia, and involved important leaders of 

48 Rod Davis, 177-190; Pinckney, 135-145. 

49 Davis writes the term "orisha voudou." I have chosen to use "Orisha Voodoo' 
in keeping with the principles of capitalizing the names of religions and keeping with 
traditional spellings of "Voodoo." 

50 Rod Davis, 36. 

African, Afro-Latin, and African- American religions, including King Adefumni. It was 

the first initiation into Orisha Voodoo carried out by American blacks. During the 

ceremony, Adefumni made the ceremony's ideological value clear, stating, "All across 

America now in every major city you are going to find that the gods of Africa have 

descended." Using the language of the Civil Rights Movement, he continued, 

"Gradually, we shall overcome - through these initiations, which so many of the people, 

of the voudou inside of the people, are seeking." 51 The initiation was a far cry from the 

condemnatory articles that once appeared in The New Republic and Ebony. Santeria has 

helped some African- Americans embrace their spiritual history, instead of rejecting it as 


None of the three forces that has shaped conjure in the second half of the 

twentieth century has operated in isolation from the others. Instead, a form of Neo- 

Voodoo has developed, characterized by interaction between them. Many modern 

practitioners fuse elements of science, New Age philosophy, and syncretic religions, in 

lesser or greater degrees, depending upon their personal ideologies. For example, Claudia 

Williams, who entered Voodoo by way of the New Age, encountered Latin American 

syncretic religions much earlier. As a child, she lived above a Santerian botanica. 

Though she was interested in the faith and learned much about it, her parents did not 

encourage her. Similarly, although James McTeer generally explained the success of 

rootwork in terms of parapsychology and psychology, he was also strongly attached to 

several New Age concepts. In Fifty Years as a Low Country Witch Doctor, he expressed 

51 Ibid., 28-38, 299-312, quoted 310. 

belief in the unity of all religions through a universal "Supreme Force," in reincarnation, 

and in a variety of other features common in Eastern-influenced New Age philosophy. 52 
Just as the three forces which compose Neo-Voodoo have interacted among each 
other, so have they contributed to traditional forms of hoodoo. For instance, Catherine 
Yronwode, owner of the Lucky Mojo Curio Company, sells products "made the way they 
were made in your grandma's day -- the way they SHOULD be made today." 53 At the 
same time, she also stocks items aimed at believers in Latin American syncretic faiths. 54 
Yronwode also practices tantric yoga, an Indian form of sacred sex strongly linked to 
New Age philosophy in the United States. Today, even tourist hoodoo draws on Neo- 
Voodoo. According to the website of the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum, the 
source of Voodoo's power is Kundalini, a supposed "river" of energy that flows through 
each individual. The concept of Kundalini originated in India and is strongly tied to 
various forms of yoga. The website goes on to proclaim that "everything you do is to lift 
yourself to higher consciousness." 55 In addition, New Orleans draws many Neo- 

52 Claudia Williams, interview by author; McTeer, Low Country Witch Doctor, 12- 

"Catherine Yronwode, "Anointing Oils," Lucky Mojo Curio Company Website, 
1995-2002, <> (29 July 2002). 

54 Yronwode is not alone in her willingness to sell products associated with 
Santeria. Virtually all hoodoo shops stock items tied to Santeria and other syncretic 
faiths, particularly saint candles. 

55 Banks Griffen and Dane Reugger, "What Is Voodoo?," 1997, The New Orleans 
Historic Voodoo Museum Website, <> (29 
July 2002). 

Voodooists, who benefit from the city's position as the most important center of tourist 

Voodoo. The influence of Neo- Voodoo is virtually inescapable. 56 

Despite its pervasive influence, the eclectic character of Neo- Voodoo ensures that 

its adherents will differ on a variety of issues. For instance, practitioners disagree over 

the terms they apply to themselves, the sources of their powers, and the number of 

believers. In some cases, such disagreements have developed into schools of thought. 

One of the most obvious divisions is between those who seek to practice historical 

hoodoo and those who are willing to incorporate outside ideas. For some, like Jason 

Black, hoodoo is just a part of a much broader occult worldview. As a result, they see no 

reason to draw sharp distinctions between conjure and other non-black occult practices. 

Others maintain that hoodoo is best approached in a "purer" form. For instance, while 

Jason Black carried out his own initiation, Ava Kay Jones and Sallie Ann Glassman 

underwent traditional inductions into Voodoo. Glassman, a white, even traveled to Haiti 

to study Vodou. When she was ready, priests initiated her into the religion. According to 

her, "priests" and "priestesses" who have not undergone traditional initiations are frauds. 

The most extreme version of purist Voodoo is that practiced by Oyotunji's Oba 

"Catherine Yronwode, "Lucky Mojo Curio Co.," Lucky Mojo Curio Company 
Website, 1995-2002, <> (29 July 
2002); Catherine Yronwode, "Catherine Yronwode," Lucky Mojo Curio Company 
Website, 1995-2002, <> (29 July 2002); J. Gordon 
Melton, et al., New Age Encyclopedia: A Guide to the Beliefs, Concepts, Terms, People, 
and Organizations That Make up the New Global Movement Toward Spiritual 
Development, Health and Healing, Higher Consciousness, and Related Subjects (Detroit 
and London: Gale Research, Inc., 1990), s.v. "Kundalini Yoga," by Aidan A. Kelly. 

Oseijeman Adefumni I, who aims to eliminate all non- African influences on Yoruba 
religion as part of his separatist ideology." 

Racial issues have further separated practitioners. White Voodooists and 
conjurers see hoodoo as a multicultural practice open to all races. According to many 
African- Americans, however, hoodoo is part of their cultural heritage and therefore 
forbidden to outsiders. 58 Phoenix Savage, a Pennsylvania-born hoodooist, writes, "I 
would suspect that I better represent hoodoo than the New Age white folks running a 
hoodoo business. I rather resent those types, from a cultural sense of things." 59 At times, 
race-based disagreements deteriorated into near violence. Sallie Ann Glassman reports 
that some African- Americans oppose her performance of public Voodoo ceremonies, 
sometimes turning to insults and intimidation to dissuade her. Followers of Louis 
Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, have also threatened her by e-mail. A common 
theme of these verbal and written assaults is that whites should not practice a black 
religion. Both sides of the dispute dearly hold to their beliefs. Still, virtually all 
hoodooists of both races have a multicultural clientele. More important, those willing to 
threaten the other side are a minority. Thus far, no one has been physically harmed in the 
dispute. 60 

"Black and Hyatt, 1 17-125; Rod Davis, 299-312; Glassman, interview by author. 

58 Please note that this disagreement is not universal. For example, Miriam 
Chamani asserts that Voodoo knows no race. See Chamani, interview by author. 

59 Phoenix Savage, <> "Re: A question on hoodoo," 10 
July 2002, personal e-mail (10 July 2002). I have made a few spelling corrections in this 

^Phoenix Savage, interview by author; Glassman, interview by author. 

The future role of conjure in American society remains undetermined. In addition 
to internal differences in ideology, both Neo-Voodoo and traditional hoodoo remain 
objects of attack. For example, in 1990, Mother Jones published a brief article, entitled 
"The War on Voodoo," which addressed Voodoo, Santeria, and related beliefs from the 
assumption that they were types of black magic tied to the drug trade. In 2001, director 
Spike Lee attacked Hollywood's depictions of what he called "the super-duper, magical 
Negro," in movies like The Green Mile and The Legend of Bagger Vance. 61 He argued 
that such characters, who generally helped whites with their supernatural powers, 
distracted from real social issues and were thus a form of racism. Meanwhile, laws 
against practicing medicine without a license, mail fraud, and the like continue to work 
against conjure, even though they are enforced less rigorously than they once were. 62 

Despite continuing threats to hoodoo, its expansion beyond the bounds of African- 
American society is helping to preserve it for future generations. Some practitioners even 
argue that the United States is in the midst of an African- American magical renaissance. 
According to Catherine Yronwode, along with growing Latin American and white 
participation, many blacks are returning to conjure as a link to their history. Deborah 
confirms Yronwode' s statements. According to her, hoodoo is stronger now than it was 
ten years ago. In fact, she entered the craft in order to combat evil witchcraft, which she 
believed had become a major problem by the mid-1980s. Although conjure continues to 
face attacks from without and dissention within, the forces of modern science, New Age 


61 "Lee Rails against Hollywood," The Gainesville Sun, 7 February 2001. 
"Lynda Gorov, "The War on Voodoo," Mother Jones, June 1990, 12; "Lee 

philosophy, and Latin American syncretic religions have helped it adapt to a new 
century. 63 


Yronwode, interview by author; Deborah, interview by author. 


For too long, conjure has remained an obscure topic in American history. 
Nevertheless, it has been a significant part of the black experience. As was true with 
other features of African- American society, hoodoo grew out of slavery. Together, the 
experiences of slave raids, the Middle Passage, and the rigors of involuntary labor 
guaranteed that the African way of life could not survive intact in the New World. Like 
the African- American culture of which it was a part, conjure emerged as a composite of 
European, Native American, and African elements. At the same time, whites have 
persistently sought to suppress the practice. Nevertheless, hoodooists have continued to 
command great respect within their communities, even as old-fashioned conjure evolved 
into modern consumer hoodoo. Today, many blacks and whites still turn to African- 
American magic as a source of both spiritual enlightenment and practical 

In a time when magic is largely discredited as a valid practice and many scholars 
eschew religious faith, the study of conjure can seem unprofitable. Some might consider 
it a perpetuation of old stereotypes that depict blacks as slaves to superstition. The truth 
is far more complex. Conjure has served a variety of functions within African- American 
society and played a pivotal role in shaping other aspects of black culture. Hoodoo's 
power was not just a figment of African- Americans' imagination. On the contrary, 
widespread belief made it an effective force, even among many whites. Conjurers could 


use pharmacologically active herbs to treat illness, psychology to ease mental ailments, 

fear to bring about the deaths of enemies and acquittals at trials, or good advice to 

encourage patrons to succeed on their own. Whatever their tactics, they had genuine 

power to help people achieve a variety of ends, ranging from the mundane to the 

seemingly impossible. At the very least, they gave their clients hope for success, spurring 

them to continue their efforts. 1 

Because of the authority and reputation it gave to individuals, hoodoo became an 

important force for social regulation. For instance, reliance on magic for vengeance 

helped limit the use of violence to settle disputes. During the antebellum period, 

conjurers helped slaves cope with lives of servitude by providing roots that allegedly 

prevented whippings, powders designed to give them control over their masters, and a 

variety of similar charms. Slaves could even buy "poisons" which promised to sicken or 

kill their owners. 2 With such magical powers at their disposal, physical violence was 

often unnecessary. A more recent example of conjure's function was that of John and 

Leroy Ivy, who attempted to kill Judge Thomas Gardner UJ of Tupelo, Mississippi, in 

1989. Their motivation was revenge for the judge's sentencing of John Ivy to forty years 

in prison on robbery charges. Rather than taking the direct route of murder, the Ivys 

turned to hoodoo. Doubtless, they believed it would be easier to carry out a murder by 

magic than by physical force. The plot collapsed after they asked the judge's black 

See the previous chapters for examples of such cases. 

2 Doubtless, some conjurers sold genuine poisons, but most probably relied on 
magic to harm their victims. 

housekeeper to supply them with a lock of his hair and a photograph. The Ivy's were 

soon arrested on charges of conspiracy to commit murder. 3 

Conversely, fear of conjure has probably dissuaded some from taking actions that 
might result in a magical counterstroke. In parts of South Carolina, for example, people 
would threaten to "go to Beaufort" on those who made them angry. 4 The significance of 
the statement was that Beaufort was the home of Dr. Buzzard. Similarly, the common 
nineteenth-century practice of isolating suspected hoodooists from the rest of the 
population was an example of avoiding offense by limiting conjurers' social contact with 
the rest of the community. 5 

Stories about conjure also served as a means of communicating societal values. 
One striking example was a tale collected by Elon Ali Kulii. According to an informant 
living in Indianapolis, Indiana, her grandmother once had an acquaintance who 
romantically pursued a man who had no interest in her. Although her friends advised her 
to give up, she turned to an "herb doctor" for help. He gave her a powder to sprinkle 
along the path that the man usually followed to and from work. The spell seemed to work 
just as the woman intended. Soon, the man was madly in love with her. The relationship 
quickly led to marriage. After about six months, however, the woman realized that she 
did not love her husband as much as she thought. She soon began to "fool around" with 
another man. Her dalliance did not last long. One day her husband walked in on her and 

3 Wyatt-Brown, 313, 315-316, 424-425; "Special Judge Hears Case: Two Blacks 
Face Murder Charges in Voodoo Scheme," Jet, 17 July 1989, 52-53. Unfortunately, I 
have been unable to discover the result of the Ivy trial. 

'Fields, 121. 

5 Bass, "Mojo," 83. 

her lover. In a jealous rage, he killed them both. Clearly, the morals of the tale, passed 
down to the young and inexperienced, are to let love follow its own course and to remain 
faithful to one's spouse. 6 

What historically distinguished hoodoo from other forms of magic was its role as 
a tool of an oppressed race. Among the black populace, conjure was thought to be a 
source of protection against abuse by slave masters and unfair employers, economic 
success in a white-dominated business world, and hope to those charged with crimes 
under the Jim Crow justice system. From the standpoint of conjurers, the profession 
allowed them to assume a variety of roles otherwise closed to them by economics and 
white prejudice. For example, as herbal healers, hoodooists filled the role of medical 
doctors. African- Americans were pitifully poor between the Civil War and Civil Rights 
Movement. They could seldom afford the charges of university-trained physicians. The 
only viable alternatives were rootworkers. Hoodooists have also filled the roles of 
psychiatrists for those who could not call upon the services of mental health 
professionals. Likewise, during the Jim Crow era, African-Americans required all the 
legal help they could get, yet the study of the law was all but denied blacks. Once again, 
hoodooists filled the void, providing those who believed in magic with spells to sway 

6 Kulii, "A Look at Hoodoo," 357-358. One of the first authors to investigate the 
social function of conjure was Leonora Herron, whose "Conjuring and Conjure Doctors" 
appeared in 1891. According to Herron, blacks' unbounded faith in magic was a way of 
procuring justice in an unjust system. See Herron, 117-118. 

judges, juries, and law enforcement officials. In short, conjurers were the poor man's 
doctors, psychiatrists, and lawyers. 7 

Because of hoodoo's many uses, conjurers often attained positions of great 
influence. For instance, during the days of slavery, conjurers frequently became 
community leaders, respected for their knowledge and feared for their occult power. 
Moreover, many whites also held hoodooists in high regard. After all, crossing a conjurer 
might result in poisoning. 8 

After emancipation, wealth also followed hoodooists. In the 1930s black tenant 
farmers could expect to make as little as $1.50 a week for backbreaking labor. Even 
those who labored in relatively high-paying northern factories rarely made more than 
$20.00 a day. Moreover, black workers were more vulnerable to retrenchment than their 
white counterparts. At the very least, hoodooists entered the middle class as self- 
employed professionals. In many cases, they did much better. Conjurers like Jean 
Bayou, Julius P. Caesar, Dr. Buzzard, and James Jordan, generally made more each day 
than the highest paid black factory workers did in a week. 9 In some cases, successful 
conjurers could make more in a day than a black tenant farmer could in a year. Not only 
did their wealth surpass that of almost all other African- Americans, it also elevated them 
well above the economic status of the vast majority of whites. Even today, Elon Kulii 
affirms that many root doctors have become millionaires. He estimates that the hoodoo 

7 Puckett, 167-169, 207-209, 259-262. For another early discussion of the 
conjurers' multiple roles, see William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, "The Religion of the 
American Negro," New World 9 (1900): 614-625. 

8 Wyatt-Brown, 424-425; Izard, 160. 

9 For details on these particular conjurers' incomes, see Chapters 2 and 3. 

industry generated $3,000,000,000 annually during the late 1970s. Furthermore, as 

during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, economic prosperity continues to 
bring social prominence. Modern hoodooists, like Master Bishop Robinson, remain 
widely respected members of their communities. 10 

In reference to African- Americans, discussions of equality are usually conducted 
along the lines of race. Nevertheless, equality between the sexes has long been an issue 
for both blacks and whites. In the antebellum South, "respectable" white women seldom 
worked outside the home. Property restrictions, strict control of female sexuality, and a 
lack of political opportunity were even more prevalent. Although the period since the 
Civil War has been one of enormous change in white females' political, sexual, and 
economic positions in American society, the separation between the private female and 
public male has remained strong. While women have historically failed to achieve full 
equality with men, African- American women proved unable to reach a parity with their 
white counterparts. Despite emancipation and the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, 
black females were unable to vote in substantial numbers until the overthrow of Jim 
Crow during the 1960s and 1970s. In addition, they were even less likely to hold high- 
status jobs than white women. In the South, black women could most commonly be 
found working as tenant farmers, domestic servants, and laundresses, professions 
shunned by the vast majority of whites. As was true with men, women had little 

10 Pinckney, 102, 1 19-120, 149-150; Johnson, 46, 60; Hearn, "The Last of the 
Voudoos," 726-727; Hyatt, Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft-Rootwork, 1642; Jacqueline 
Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family from 
Slavery to the Present (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 128, 166-167, 206-207; 
Carmer, 215-218; Puckett, 207-209; Kulii, "A Look at Hoodoo," 151-152; Robinson, 
interview by author. 

opportunity to improve their economic standing. For instance, Mississippi's female 

domestics earned an average of $2.00 each week for labor from sunup to sundown during 

the 1930s. Even when black women held the same jobs as whites, they usually received 

much lower wages. ' ' 

Conjuring was one of the few professions that allowed women to escape the 

domestic ideal and to avoid the necessity of menial labor. While women by no means 

comprised the majority of hoodoo practitioners, they were highly- visible members of 

blacks' magical world. For instance, when Zora Neale Hurston interviewed New Orleans 

conjurers for "Hoodoo in America," she spoke primarily to men. Nevertheless, Ruth 

Mason, a female hoodooist, carried out the most powerful and involved ritual in which 

Hurston participated. 12 In addition, all five of the male conjurers with whom she spoke 

willingly instructed her in their craft. Also, she reported that "practically all of the 

hoodoo doctors of Louisiana" relied on spells traditionally attributed to the female 

Voodoo queen, Marie Laveau. 13 A 1987 incident graphically illustrated the sexual parity 

within conjure. Tommy Lee Berry and his wife, "Mama Betty" Berry, had once operated 

a successful rootworking business in the town of Blakely, Georgia. After their marriage 

"Jacqueline Jones, 44-151, 196-231. For full discussions of women's roles in 
American and southern society see Sara M. Evans, Born for Liberty: A History of Women 
in America (New York and London: The Free Press, 1989); Anne Firor Scott, The 
Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics, 1830-1930 (Chicago and London: University 
of Chicago Press, 1970); Cynthia Fuchs Epstein, Woman 's Place: Options and Limits in 
Professional Careers (Berkeley, CA, Los Angeles, and London: University of California 
Press, 1970). 

12 This spell was a dance before an image of death. The intended result was the 
death of a client's former lover. 

13 Hurston, "Hoodoo in America," 327. 

ended in divorce, both spouses continued to practice hoodoo. Unfortunately for Mama 
Betty, she competed too successfully against her former husband. Tommy Lee gunned 
her down after she answered the door for two women seeking the aid of a "spiritual 
advisor." Despite the unfortunate consequences for Mama Betty, conjure has been an 
equal opportunity employment. 14 

In addition to conjure's social functions, it has also contributed strongly to other 
aspects of African- American culture, most notably the arts, language, and religion. The 
art most strongly affected by hoodoo has been music. Songs referring to conjure were 
already in circulation by the nineteenth century. Some of these were designed to ward off 
evil magic. A worker from the Federal Writers Project recorded one such song during the 
1930s. It went, "Keep 'way from me, hoodoo and witch, Lead my path from de 
porehouse gate; I pines for golden harps and sich, Lawd, I'll jes' set down and wait. Old 
Satan am a liar and a conjurer, too-If you don't watch out, he'll conjure you." 15 Others 
told stories of conjure. Henry F. Pyles remembered an example. The words, which 
recounted the process by which a nineteenth-century hoodooist, named "Old Bab," made 
his charms, were: 

14 Hurston, "Hoodoo in America," 326-327, 357-360, 362-363, 368-371, 380-382, 
387-388, 390-391; '"Root Doctor' Held in Murder of His Former Wife" Jet, 1 June 
1987, 29. Works aimed at a popular audience, such as Stars Fell on Alabama and 
Charles W. Chesnutt's The Conjure Woman, gave women an even more important role in 
conjuring. The popular image of conjurers as female reflects European beliefs about 
witchcraft, which was strongly associated with women. See Levack, 124-131. 

15 Willis Easter, interview by Federal Writers Project employee (Texas), The 
American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, George P. Rawick, ed., (Westport: 
Greenwood Publishing Company, 1972), vol. 4, part 2, 3; quoted in Albert J. Raboteau, 
Slave Religion: The "Invisible Institution " in the Antebellum South (Oxford and New 
York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 286. 


Little pinch o' pepper, 
Little bunch o' wool. 


Two, three Pammy Christy beans, 
Little piece o' rusty iron. 


Wrop it in a rag and tie it with hair, 
Two from a hoss and one from a mare. 

Mumbledy, mumbledy, mumbledy. 

Wet it in whiskey 

Boughten with silver; 

That make you wash so hard your sweat pop out, 

And he come to pass, sure! 16 

Such songs foreshadowed blues music about hoodoo. Among the more than one hundred 
blues songs addressing conjure were many by such prominent artists as "Blind Lemon" 
Jefferson, Muddy Waters, and Louis Jordan. 17 

African- American visual art and literature have also been influenced by conjure. 
For example, rootwork featured prominently in the works of Sam Doyle, a recently- 
deceased folk artist from Beaufort, South Carolina. One of Doyle's best-known paintings 
was a portrait of Dr. Buzzard. Conjurers have also been common in African- American 
literature. In the 1899 book, The Conjure Woman, Charles W. Chesnutt told of Uncle 
Julius, a prolific teller of conjure tales, and his relationships with whites. Chesnutt's 
stories, which often depict the hardships of slavery, were also an implicit critique of 
America's racist society. Today, nationalist authors, such as poet Ishmael Reed, depict 

16 Botkin, 29. 

17 See Catherine Yronwode, "Blues Lyrics and Hoodoo. 

hoodooists as tricksters who undermine white power with magic. One need not be a 

nationalist, however, to use conjurers in one's writing. For many female African- 
American authors, conjure women are examples of powerful, independent black women. 
Alice Walker's The Third Life of Grange Copeland provides an example. One character, 
Sister Madelaine, is a two-headed doctor, who uses her income from conjure and 
fortunetelling to send her son to college. Though the son initially disdains his mother's 
"superstition," he comes to admire her profession and its attendant power after joining the 
Civil Rights Movement. A similar character appears in Toni Morrison's Sula. Like 
Sister Madelaine, Morrison's conjurer is a strong black woman. Even the book's 
narrator, who ostensibly condemns her as evil, nevertheless expresses her admiration for 
the hoodooist's knowledge, child-rearing skills, magical acumen, and even physical 
appearance. 18 

Language is another aspect of black culture that has been influenced by conjure. 
Words like "hoodoo," "Voodoo," and "mojo" have become household words, even 
amongst whites. Similarly, the pejorative terms, "hoochie-choochie woman" and 
"hoochie choochie man," originally referred to hoodoo practitioners. Today, however, 
they are more commonly used as insults applied to the sexually immoral. More 
distinctive, however, are phrases derived from hoodoo that have lost their original 

18 Kyoichi Tsuzuki, Sam Doyle (Books Nippan, 1990); Chesnutt, v-xix, 36-63, 
103-131; Lindroth, 185-196; Reed, Mumbo Jumbo; Reed, Conjure: Selected Poems, 
1963-1970; Houston A. Baker, Jr., Workings of the Spirit: The Poetics of Afro-American 
Women 's Writing (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 97-99; Alice 
Walker, The Third Life of Grange Copeland (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 
1970); Toni Morrison, Sula (New York: Knopf, 1974). See also Marjorie Pryse and 
Hortense J. Spillers, ed., Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition 
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985). 

significance. An informant interviewed by Elon Kulii in 1977, stated that she 
commended hosts who prepared especially good meals by stating, "this is so good you 
must have peed in this." 19 As the informant recognized, the phrase derived from black 
women's practice of urinating into the food that they were preparing for husbands or 
lovers. By doing so, they believed that their men would be unable to leave them for other 
women. The much more common phrase, "I'll fix you," probably originated in conjure. 
Although it now is a general term meaning that the speaker will take revenge on the 
listener, it initially referred to the conjuring term, "fixing," a word for laying curses. 20 

Conjure has had its greatest influence on religion. According to theologian 
Theophus Smith, it has affected virtually all African-Americans' worldviews. In 
Conjuring Culture, he maintained that conjure must be understood as more than sorcery. 21 
Smith argued that blacks used hoodoo as a means of magically healing or transforming 
society. The Bible was the primary means of carrying out the reshaping. An example of 
Biblical conjuring was blacks' emulation of Jesus. According to Smith, they did not act 
simply in imitation. Instead, African- Americans hoped to leam how Christ used his 

19 Kulii, "A Look at Hoodoo," 264. The informant's earlier statements indicate 
that she referred to a compliment used by other African- Americans. 

20 Major, Juba to Jive, 109, 208, 239-240, 306-307, 496-497; Kulii, "A Look at 
Hoodoo," 261-264. 

2 'To stress his broader definition of conjuring, Smith uses "conjuror" rather than 
the standard "conjurer" to designate hoodoo practitioners. He adopts this title for its 
implications of exhortation rather than simply casting of spells. 

victimization to change his oppressors. This potentially world-changing power of conjure 
made it a vital force during the Civil Rights Movement and has kept it important today. 22 

While Smith's theological work applies to all black Christians, some 
denominations had much stronger and more visible links to conjure. The nominally 
Christian Spiritual Church, founded in New Orleans in 1920, has been the sect most 
strongly influenced by hoodoo. Many of the denomination's largely independent 
congregations accept much of mainstream Christian doctrine, including a slightly- 
modified version of the Apostle's Creed, renamed the "Divine Spiritual Creed." At the 
same time, they all incorporate a variety of distinctly non-Christian beliefs, including 
reincarnation. One reason for the Spirituals' unorthodox views is that their denomination 
is a mixture of many influences, including Catholicism, Pentecostalism, and white 
spiritualism. The impact of hoodoo and Voodoo, however, is evident throughout the 
faith. For instance, the chief feature which sets Spirituals apart from orthodox Christians 
is their belief in a host of spirits, which often possess members of the congregation during 
services. In addition, as in Voodoo these spirits frequently carry the names of saints. 
While they have lost any African names they once had, their numbers include a variety of 
spirits who have little to do with Catholicism. The most important of these is Black 

22 Theophus Smith, 3-15, 183-205. Smith divided his book into three parts. Each 
part was subdivided into chapters in which he examined particular books and sets of 
books from the Bible and their conjuring use. The first part dealt with ethnographic 
issues. Here, Smith contended that Genesis, Exodus, and the Law defined African- 
Americans' magical cosmogony, belief in conjuring God for freedom, and curing for 
violence. In Part II, Smith suggested that the Bible's Spirituals (Psalms), Prophecy, and 
Wisdom defined blacks' theories of aesthetics and vocations and their worldview. The 
last part was his argument that the Gospels, Praxis (Book of Acts), and Apocalypse 
shaped African- American theology on curing violence, acts/activism, and 

Hawk, an Indian spirit once associated with Voodoo. Others include White Hawk, Father 
Jones, St. Expedite, and a variety of deceased Spiritual Church leaders. Some even 
recognize "Mother" Marie Laveau as an early church founder. 23 

Spirituals also engage in much hoodoo-like magic. 24 For example, the church's 
spiritual advisors use the supernatural to heal paying clients of various ailments. In many 
cases, the ministers discover that their clients have "unnatural" illnesses brought on by 
possession by evil spirits or diabolic witchcraft. Some also aid those facing legal trouble 
by performing rituals or making charms. Such magic is also present during regular 
church services. During a Spiritual "cleansing service" witnessed by the author, those 
being purged of evil spirits stood upon a folded white cloth. Then, a church leader struck 
each person with white flowers that had been dipped in a basin containing salt water. Salt 
had long been a protective agent in African- American conjure. Church leaders also 
recommended that members use floor washes to protect themselves at home and that they 
secretly mix various spiritual products in their children's bath water to help them grow to 
be good people. 25 

Despite the similarities among hoodoo, Voodoo, and the Spiritual Church, many 
church members deny that their beliefs have anything to do with the older practices. On 
the contrary, Bishop Barbara Gore, current leader of the St. Benedict Spiritual Church, 

"Jacobs and Kaslow, 30-48, 74, 125-148, 209. 

24 Please note that spiritualists do not refer to such practices as magic. To them, it 
is simply part of the dealings with spirits common in their faith. I use "magic" for the 
term's simplicity and the consequent ease with which it can be compared with hoodoo. 

25 Jacobs and Kaslow, 149-169; Barbara Gore, bishop of St. Benedict Spiritual 
Church, interview by author, 1 1 November 2001, New Orleans, LA, notes and audio 
recording, personal collection, Birmingham, AL. 

argues that Voodoo was and is an evil practice. According to her, although Spiritual 
ministers and Voodooists use some of the same magical materials, the former use them 
only for good. While Voodoo calls on evil spirits, Spirituals rely only on benevolent 
ones. Like many modem African- American magical practitioners, members of Spiritual 
churches have distanced themselves from terms that white society has traditionally 
defined as evil, including "hoodoo," "Voodoo," and "conjure." The change in 
terminology, however, has not drastically altered their magical practices. 26 

The Spiritual Church was not alone in its incorporation of conjure into its 
religious rituals. Black Pentecostalism has also been influenced by African- American 
magic. Pentecostalism grew out of the nineteenth-century Holiness Movement. Like 
mainstream Protestantism, the Holiness Movement stressed personal salvation through 
belief in Jesus Christ. Unlike other Protestants, however, it also advocated the doctrine of 
sanctification, a process by which believers progressively became more holy through the 
development of their faith. Though initially operating within established denominations, 
including the Baptists and Methodists, the Holiness Movement took an independent 
course during the 1890s. Proponents of holiness chose this avenue in order to protest the 
increasing liberalism and modernism of the mainstream churches. As part of its rejection 
of modernism, the movement turned to older forms of rural folk Christianity, including an 
emphasis on emotion. One consequence was that the movement began to appeal to 


Gore, interview by author. 

African-Americans. In fact, the first legally chartered holiness church in the South was a 
black congregation of the Church of God in Christ. 27 

From this milieu arose Pentecostalism. Among its chief early proponents was 
William J. Seymour, a former black Texan Baptist. He first gained national attention by 
presiding over a series of interracial revivals at the Azusa Street Mission of Los Angeles, 
California. These revivals were the first stirrings of what would emerge as the 
Pentecostal movement. Its stress on the "baptism of the Holy Spirit" set it apart from the 
Holiness Movement. This baptism gave believers the ability to produce signs of their 
sanctification, such as the gifts of tongues, healing, and prophecy. 28 

Today, approximately 20 percent of all American Pentecostals are African- 
American. Pentecostalism's large black membership, along with its stress on spiritual 
gifts, opened it to contributions from conjure. Like members of Spiritual churches and 
believers in hoodoo, Pentecostals often saw illness in terms of demonic influence. 
Similarly, ministers and other church leaders were often the tools by which such maladies 
could be cured, sometimes through the use of materials associated with hoodoo, including 
oils. In addition, many believed that major early leaders of the Pentecostal movement 
possessed objects imbued with supernatural power. William J. Seymour, for instance, 
reputedly owned a glass eye which he used to perform magic. Another prominent leader, 

27 Yvonne Patricia Chireau, "Conjuring: An Analysis of African American Folk 
Beliefs and Practices" (Ph.D. diss., Princeton University, 1994), 248-257; Vinson Synan, 
The Holiness-Pentecostal Tradition: Charismatic Movements in the Twentieth Century, 
2 nd ed. (Grand Rapids and Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1997), 70-71. 

28 Chireau, 248-257. 

Charles Harrison Mason, used roots to supposedly discern God's will, a practice already 
familiar to those who had experience with hoodoo. 29 

Conjure-like practices continue in some churches even today. According to Jonell 
Smith, the pastor of one of New Orleans' Full Gospel churches uses magic in his 
services. Smith, a member of a Spiritual church, was upset by what she saw as hypocrisy 
on the part the leadership of the rival church. While Spirituals openly deal with spirits, 
the leaders of the Full Gospel Church condemn the practice while surreptitiously doing 
the same. The only major difference, according to Smith, is that while Spirituals use saint 
candles and herbs, the Full Gospel Church uses birthday candles and olive oil. As 
Smith's experience demonstrates, hoodoo survives in the seemingly most unlikely of 
places. 30 

The failure of historians to recognize the significance of hoodoo has been a 
mistake. First, it has been a constant presence from colonial times to the present. 
Throughout American history, conjure has been a source of healing, luck, financial 
success, love, and revenge for clients. Today, it can also be a form of New Age 
spirituality or an expression of black nationalism. For practitioners, it has historically 
been a path to wealth and power. At present, the spiritual products industry generates 
millions, if not billions, of dollars in revenue. In addition, hoodoo is both one of black 
Americans' strongest links to their African past and a powerful case study in the impact 

29 Chireau, 257-267; Grant Wacker, Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and 
American Culture (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2001), 65, 91-92, 
104-105, 153, 206-207, 226-235; Synan, 167-186. 

30 Smith and Smith, conversations with and overheard by author. 

of European and Native American ideas on black culture. Finally, its social functions and 
pervasive impact on other aspects of African- American culture cannot be ignored. 

The influence of conjure on African- American society and culture is difficult to 
underestimate, but the most compelling reason for its study is that it is an ongoing 
practice. A 1995 article in Florida's St. Petersburg Times, reported that court case spells 
were common in Miami, home to both hoodoo and recent imports like Santeria and 
Haitian Vodou. Kenneth Ausly, investigator for the district attorney of Alabama's 
Monroe and Conecuh counties, confirmed that many African- Americans relied on court 
case magic in his state, as well. On a darker note, Josephine V. Gray, of Germantown, 
Pennsylvania, has been under investigation twice in the last eleven years for crimes 
connected with the death of two former husbands and a lover. Though she allegedly 
committed her first murder in 1974, she escaped prosecution for more than twenty-five 
years. As one of the prosecutors explained, "There is a very unusual type of witness 
intimidation that had occurred in this case, which was the idea that Josephine Gray had 
the ability to practice black magic or witchcraft or voodoo." 31 An assistant agreed, 
stating, "Fear permeated this entire case." 32 As incidents like that involving Josephine 
Gray demonstrate, conjure is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. 33 

31 "Md. Woman Facing Murder Charges Again," The Washington Post, 5 January 
2002, Bl. 

32 Ibid. 

33 "Where the Best Defense Is a Good Hex," St. Petersburg Times, 10 April 1995, 
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Jeffrey Elton Anderson was born on October 5, 1974, in Mansfield, Ohio. While 
growing up in Fayette County, Alabama, he attended public elementary and high schools, 
graduating in 1993. In 1997, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree in history from 
Samford University. After finishing his undergraduate work, he enrolled in the history 
graduate program at the University of Florida. He received his Master of Arts in history 
in late 1999 and was admitted as a Doctor of Philosophy candidate in 2000. 

Jeffrey Anderson currently resides in Birmingham, Alabama, where he is a part- 
time instructor in history at Samford University. 


I certify that I have read this study and that in my opinion it conforms to 
acceptable standards of scholarly presentation and is fully adequate, in scope and quality, 
as a dissertation for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. 

Bertram Wyatt-Bro^h, Chair 
Eminent Scholar of History 

I certify that I have read this study and that in my opinion it conforms to 
acceptable standards of scholarly presentation and is fully adequate, in scope and quality, 
as a dissertation for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. 

Co ■ ^ s — — ^g= 

W. Fitzhugh Brundage 
Professor of History 

I certify that I have read this study and that in my opinion it conforms to 
acceptable standards of scholarly presentation and is fully adequate, in scope and quality, 
as a dissertation for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. 

j-. ^jt^^A—duxL^ 

Jpn F. Sensbach 

Associate Professor of History 

I certify that I have read this study and that in my opinion it conforms to 
acceptable standards of scholarly presentation and is fully adequate, in scope and quality, 
as a dissertation for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. 

Alice Freifeld r 

Associate Professor of History 

I certify that I have read this study and that in my opinion it conforms to 
acceptable standards of scholarly presentation and is fully adequate, in scope and quality, 
as a dissertation for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. 

David G. Hackett 

Associate Professor of Religion 

This dissertation was submitted to the Graduate Faculty of the Department of 
History in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and to the Graduate School and was 
accepted as partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. 

December 2002 

Dean, Graduate School 



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